Paul Ryan absolutely wrong on Congress' dress code

Story highlights

  • Speaker Paul Ryan has said he's considering a looser Capitol Hill dress code. That's a mistake, writes Mel Robbins
  • Robbins: Professionalism in Washington is under attack, starting from the top

Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator, legal analyst, international best-selling author of "The 5 Second Rule" and keynote speaker. She also is a contributing editor for Success magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)This week, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he was working with the House Sergeant-at-Arms to "modernize" and "update" the business dress code for the Speaker's Lobby, the area outside the House chamber where lawmakers and reporters gather.

For decades, the rules of the room have required men to wear a suit and tie, and have barred women who are wearing sleeveless tops and open-toed shoes. But then the Internet erupted after a female reporter was recently denied entry into the Speaker's Lobby (she was wearing a sleeveless dress), and Ryan now appears to be taking a stand for women and equality.
But before we hail him as a feminist, watch him slide into business casual and start rolling the foosball tables onto Capitol Hill, let's stop and think about what this really means.
    Yes, it's tempting to see nothing wrong with loosening the professionalism on the Hill. After all, for the past five months, Congress has been relaxing its standards for acceptable behavior and professionalism from the chief executive.
    In fact, many may think that a congressional dress code is the least of our concerns about decorum when we've got a President who literally shoves aside a foreign leader, trashes women, the free press, celebrities and others on Twitter, and (most recently) tells the French first lady that she's "in great shape" -- all while most Republicans in Congress whistle and look away.
    But think again. Professionalism in public office is under an unprecedented attack, both by the public and politicians. Maybe if Greg Gianforte had been wearing a suit on May 24, he wouldn't have felt as free to assault a reporter in the then-candidate's office (he was elected to the House anyway, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, got a deferred sentence -- and then Congress failed to censure him).
    And it's yet another reason why now is not the time to follow this lead and further loosen the standards of Congress by swapping the coat and tie for a short sleeved polo shirt. Besides, the dress code is one of the few standards we have left. I'm a loud and proud feminist and, in this case, I beg my sisters -- just grab a shawl and let's not go down this slippery slope.
    Believe it or not, there's significant research on the impact that your clothes have on how well you do your job. In a 2012 study, Adam D. Galinsky and Hajo Adam sought to determine how what we wear affects our job performance. Turns out it does -- significantly. The term is "enclothed cognition." In one experiment, participants were asked to wear a white smock and then do an attention-demanding task. Participants who were told they were wearing a doctor's coat performed better than those who were told it was a painter's smock. And in negotiation tests, participants who wore suits got better results than those who negotiated in sweats. Clothes made the difference.
    That is the science, but what about the signifiers? Well, this isn't a start-up we're running, it's Congress.
    In the start-up world, a casual dress code is a perk that helps offset the ridiculous work hours and attract the most diverse and the brightest talent. We should point out here that working long hours is not an affliction of Congress in general, and certainly not this Congress, which has so far failed to advance its legislative priorities. (A 2013 analysis in the New York Times revealed that the House was in session for just 18 hours a week.)
    How about we compromise: save the casual wear for the campaign trail. If you want to wear cargo shorts as you kiss babies and shovel down diner food with potential voters, have at it. But that's not how we want you to roll when you show up and work for us.
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    Ryan may think it's time we not take tradition and professionalism seriously, but I would suggest that most of us out here wouldn't agree. Besides, the last thing I want to see is Paul Ryan wearing a pair of Crocs as he stands on the congressional floor and argues to defund Planned Parenthood and cut Medicare.
    So gentlemen, straighten that tie, and ladies, pull on your pantsuit, because when you represent us, we still expect you to both act and dress like you have the fate of the nation in your hands.