TOPEKA — A Senate committee chairman imposed a dress code on Kansans testifying on elections or ethics bills that explicitly prohibits women from wearing skimpy skirts or blouses with plunging necklines while establishing no wardrobe restrictions exclusively for men.
In a series of interviews Thursday, a bipartisan group of women senators responded to the rules with varying degrees of dismay.
Sen. Mitch Holmes, a St. John Republican and chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, said Rule No. 2 of his 11-point code of conduct was intended to make certain each participant was dressed in a respectful manner. The instructions implemented solely at his discretion say each conferee must present themselves in “professional attire.”
He offered more detailed guidance to women conferees because he had observed provocatively clad females at the Capitol. Revealing too much of the body during testimony to the Senate committee is a distraction, he said.
“For ladies,” the rule says, “low-cut necklines and mini-skirts are inappropriate.”
His written set of guidelines didn’t denote a minimum skirt length nor did it set a maximum depth of cut for blouses.
“It's one of those things that’s hard to define,” Holmes said. “Put it out there and let people know we’re really looking for you to be addressing the issue rather than trying to distract or bring eyes to yourself.”
Holmes said he considered stipulating men had to wear suit and tie when addressing his Senate committee, but decided males didn’t need supplemental instruction on how to look professional. He expects lobbyists to be attuned to the rules when interacting with his committee, but acknowledged infrequent visitors to the Statehouse might not be aware of each fashion mandate.
Four women senators — two Republicans and two Democrats — said no chairman ought to place gender-specific demands on Kansans who were inspired to share thoughts on public policy with legislative committees.
“Oh, for crying out loud, what century is this?” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat.
“Who’s going to define low-cut?” said Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka. “Does it apply to senators?”
In the Kansas Legislature, men traditionally wear suits on the House and Senate floor. Some men sport jeans or remove their tie, but retain the jacket. Such informality most frequently occurs late at night or in final days of a legislative session. Women lawmakers wear formal slacks or dresses, sometimes paired with a jacket. They are less likely to delve into casual attire.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, said wardrobe restrictions set by Holmes could steer people away from the Capitol who don’t have clothing that meets his ideal. An individual’s opinions are more significant than what garment drapes that person’s shoulders, she said.
“I am more interested in what they have to say about the direction our state should go than what they’re wearing that day,” McGinn said.
Wichita Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s elections and ethics committee, said she had spoken with Holmes about the dress code. She said people who testified in front of the committee ought to present themselves in a professional way, but lack of consistency for men and women was a problem.
“I, my 13 years in the Legislature, that’s the first time I’ve ever read anything like that,” Faust-Goudeau said. “I thought it was a little strange.”
The last fashion controversy to erupt at the Statehouse occurred in 2014 when Rep. Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, decided college students serving as volunteer interns during the session had to comply with an expanded dress code.
Mast, the House’s speaker pro tem, said she wanted to amend the manual for House and Senate interns in a bid to improve decorum. Several legislative staff members raised First Amendment complaints and she withdrew many of the changes.
She sought to order “gentlemen” to wear a dress shirt, tie, slacks and suit. Their hair had to be neatly styled with no “over-the-top colors.” Facial hair was to be trimmed very short or clean shaven. The “ladies” could wear business outfits with a “dressy” top. Mini-skirts and tight pants were prohibited. Also banned: Revealing necklines.
In addition, no intern was to wear perfume or cologne, body piercings and tattoos had to be removed or covered, and women were limited to one earring in each ear and men could wear none.