Jackets, ties, and comparable attire: Maintaining gender norms through legislative assembly dress codes
Kate Korte was a 2021-2022 BC Legislative Intern. She is currently pursuing a law degree at the University of Victoria. Kate would like to extend her sincere thanks to the legislative librarians that assisted in researching this article and Legislative Intern Aidan Guerreiro for assistance with French translation.
The existing literature on dress codes is mostly silent regarding legislative assemblies. Previous research has instead tended to focus on other institutions, such as schools or medical settings. To address this gap, this article provides an in-depth examination into the existing dress codes of Canadian parliaments and their practical applications. The author suggests that dress codes engrain gender norms around professional dress and maintain the standard for parliamentarians as a man in a suit jacket and tie. The jacket and tie aspect of dress codes is the most frequently enforced and long held. The expectations for women’s attire and Indigenous, cultural, or traditional attire have been added on and are less frequently enforced. Such dress codes uphold a vision of a politician as a man in a suit and tie which conversely restricts the attire options for men and potentially those that are non-binary. Therefore, the author argues that dress codes present barriers to the full accommodation of gender and cultural diversity in legislative assemblies. *The online version of this article has been adjusted to correct or clarify some information related to Indigenous attire in the territorial legislative assemblies.
In March 2019, the dress code at the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia was brought to light by a group of women that contested the code’s characterization of sleeveless shirts as unacceptable. They claimed they had a “Right to Bare Arms” – a catch phrase that would soon become a viral hashtag in Canadian politics. In the days following, the Legislative Assembly’s dress code provisions were amended to better reflect modern expectations around professional attire. The “Right to Bare Arms” incident and the following changes to the dress code opened a broader conversation about dress codes in Canadian legislatures. Although the issue of dress codes may not have been of great importance when every parliamentarian was a man in a suit, the increasing diversity in provincial and territorial legislative assemblies compels us to take a closer look at how dress codes might apply in present-day legislatures. Dress codes can be broadly defined as the codified rules and guidelines pertaining to appropriate attire in a given environment. These codes are separate but informed by unspoken norms and traditions. In Canada’s provincial and territorial legislatures, dress codes typically suggest professional attire. The definition of professional attire is engendered. By convention or codified rule, most dress codes require that men must wear a suit jacket and a tie while women must wear comparable attire.
This article compares existing dress codes for members of Canada’s legislative assemblies and examines available Hansard references to dress codes to determine how such codes have been applied. Most existing literature on dress codes is silent regarding legislative assemblies and instead focuses on other institutions, such as schools or medical settings. My research fills a gap in the literature by providing an in-depth look into the existing dress codes and their practical applications. I suggest that dress codes engrain gender norms around professional dress and maintain the standard for parliamentarians as a man in a suit jacket and tie. The jacket and tie aspect of dress codes is the most frequently enforced and long held. The expectations for women’s attire and Indigenous, cultural, or traditional attire have been added on and are less frequently enforced. Such dress codes uphold a vision of a politician as a man in a suit and tie which conversely restricts the attire options for men and potentially those that are non-binary. Therefore, I argue that dress codes present barriers to the full accommodation of gender and cultural diversity in legislative assemblies.
This article combines a comparative analysis of dress codes in Canada’s provincial and territorial legislative assemblies with a content analysis of Hansard references to dress code from each legislative assembly. By conducting primary research into the various documents that relate to dress and Hansard references to dress code, I establish what provincial and territorial legislative assemblies deem to be as appropriate attire. My research includes two different types of documents: official orders, rules, or guidelines on dress and Hansard or media references to dress in the legislative assemblies. First, I looked for any codified dress codes in an assembly’s Standing Orders, rules, or other documents, such as guidelines for members, that are intended to instruct members on what to wear in the House. I also asked legislative librarians in all provincial and territorial legislative assemblies which have legislative libraries for any documents related to attire. Legislatures varied in whether they had a codified document and, if one was present, what form that document took (rules or guidelines). They also varied on whether the dress code was explicitly gendered. Dress codes either indicated that men must wear a jacket and tie and women must wear comparable attire or broadly ask that members wear professional attire. In their application, dress codes have little variance.
Following my discussion of the codified rules around dress, I examined each assembly’s Hansard for any mentions of the term ‘dress code’ to determine how dress codes are applied and enforced by Speakers. I removed any instances that were not related to the legislature, such as those that were part of debates about dress codes in schools or for police. I did not search other attire related terms, such as ‘dress,’ ‘attire,’ or specific clothing words like ‘jacket’ or ‘tie’ in Hansard to maintain my focus on the application of legislative dress codes. Most references are Points of Order raised in response to an alleged dress code infraction by a member, which allowed me to see how various Speakers have responded to such points. Legislative libraries also provided some additional Hansard references about dress that were not captured by my search because they did not directly reference the dress code. These were cross-referenced with the Hansard search I completed. My research therefore includes both Hansard references to a “dress code” and other discussions of legislative attire retrieved from librarians. Legislative librarians also assisted in finding references to instances where members wore unconventional dress that was not transcribed by Hansard but was covered by the media. In total, my research examines 63 Hansard and media references to parliamentary dress codes. Most Hansard references were Points of Order raised by members about the dress codes or requests for guidance on the dress code. This is not an exhaustive list of dress code references but rather a sample of convenience. There may have been others missed by only searching for “dress code,” and some legislatures’ online Hansard records do not contain the entire historic Hansard. While my comparative analysis of dress code documents provides context, the 63 references provide a glimpse into how dress codes are applied.
The Dress Code
Mr. Speaker, we are very mindful of and even reverential to the traditions which guide us — the dress code, our formal deference to the mace, our adherence to the rules. All are part of our democracy, not to be manipulated, mocked, or belittled.
-MLA Harry Van Mulligan in the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan, 2002.
Most provincial and territorial legislative assemblies have some form of guidelines or rules for members’ dress, apart from Ontario, Alberta, and Nova Scotia. These three legislative assemblies do not have codified dress rules or guidelines. Ontario does not maintain a dress code while Albertan Speakers have referenced Beauchesne’s Parliamentary Rules and Forms to supplement their assemblies’ lack of a dress code when ruling on Points of Order related to attire. A 2019 orientation document from the Legislative Assembly of Alberta states that Speakers maintain that men must wear jackets, dress pants, and ties. Nova Scotia also does not have codified rules related to dress but Speakers of the province’s House of Assembly have referred to the House of Commons procedures in ruling on Points of Order, which largely mirror Beauchesne. Québec’s Standing Orders maintain that “members must contribute to the maintenance of decorum.” Their parliamentary procedures further advise members to wear “neat, appropriate clothing such as business attire and avoid wearing clothes or accessories that could undermine decorum.” British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories all have written rules or Standing Orders related to dress. In Manitoba, the Clerk’s Office publishes an Outline of Procedure, which requests that “male MLAs wear a tie and jacket and that female MLAs wear a corresponding type of attire.” Likewise, in Yukon, Prince Edward Island, and Alberta, orientation documents advise men to wear a jacket and tie while women could wear comparable attire. Aside from Ontario, all legislative assemblies generally adopt the same expectations through either codified rules or those borrowed from the federal House of Commons procedures.
All legislative assemblies allow members to wear Indigenous, traditional, or cultural dress. In two of the three territorial legislative assemblies, Indigenous attire is mentioned first. For example, section 12(9) of the Rules of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut states “every Member shall be attired in a traditional dress or in a manner appropriate to the dignity of the Assembly.” In contrast, Yukon’s Members’ Procedural Handbook notes: “When the Speaker is in the Chair, the accepted dress code requires that all male MLAs wear a jacket and tie, though a First Nations themed vest has often been worn in the place of a suit jacket.” Some provincial legislative assemblies have a clause in their rules that allow members to wear Indigenous, cultural, or traditional attire. Manitoba requires that members seek permission from the Speaker before wearing such attire. As the diversity in legislative assemblies increases, there will likely be more examples of members choosing to wear Indigenous, traditional, or cultural dress.
Aside from the codified rules in their respective legislative assemblies, Speakers also cite sections 229-230 of Beauchesne from the federal House of Commons, which was authored by a former Clerk of the House of Commons. It states that a jacket, tie, and shirt are required for men and a turtleneck is not permissible. These sections are cited by Speakers as a standard to be adhered to and may corroborate their rulings on Points of Order. Members also brought Beauchesne forward to argue their own dress-code-related points. MLA Laurie Blakeman, the Member for Edmonton-Centre in Alberta, challenged the Speaker’s ruling that invoked Beauchesne in 2006. Blakeman argued that these sections are instructive rather than prohibitive:
What Beauchesne does not lay out are additional garments that male members of this House may choose to wear. For example, it doesn’t include a prohibition nor does it specifically ask that members be wearing a vest, which is quite a common garment that many gentlemen wear with a three-piece suit. It’s also silent on, perhaps, a scarf.
Speakers, including the Speaker responding to Blakeman, have not adopted her perspective. Instead, they have viewed Beauchesne as a source for the requirement that men must wear a jacket and tie and that professional business attire is required.
Most assemblies have not changed their dress codes substantively. However, BC presents an interesting example as dress code changes were prompted by the aforementioned “Right to Bare Arms” incident. Then Speaker, Darryl Plecas, requested that then-Acting Clerk, Kate Ryan-Lloyd, review the dress code and make recommendations for its modernization. In May 2019, Ryan-Lloyd consulted with members and clerks from other parliamentary jurisdictions, authored a public report on the dress code, and made nine recommendations. The report reflected on the gendered nature of dress guidelines and advised that “members should be entrusted to exercise good judgement.” Although the report lists examples of appropriate attire for men and women, it also affirms that dress codes should prescribe gender-neutral expectations of business attire. In his correspondence with members, Speaker Plecas noted that individuals who do not conform to the gender binary may dress “pursuant to the guidelines above (contemporary business attire), where they deem appropriate.” This is the only example I found of a legislative assembly document that provides guidance for non-binary members. In requesting that the Legislative Assembly of BC moves towards a “non-gender specific” dress code, Ryan-Lloyd admits that this may lead to a situation, as in Ontario, where members may choose whether to wear a tie. In the three years since this report was published, the practice of wearing a jacket and tie and generally prescribing to gendered expectations of business attire has remained unchanged in BC.
Applying The Dress Code
It’s a matter, I think, of tradition within the House, and each one of us is accountable for our own dress and our own method of conducting ourselves in this chamber.
– Speaker Ed Smith, BC Legislative Assembly, 1977
Regardless of whether a dress code is explicitly gendered, Hansard references suggest that Speakers have been reluctant to permit members to not wear jackets or ties when responding to Points of Order. Ontario is the exception as members can choose to not wear a tie. My research looks at 63 Hansard references pertaining to dress across all of the provincial and territorial legislatures in Canada, with the exclusion of Nunavut as no dress code references were found. These references illuminate the ways in which a dress code has been applied by a Speaker and establish the existing precedent in provincial and territorial legislatures for dress. Of the 63 references, only 5 were found from prior to 1970 (1949, 1959, 1960, 1963, 1969), while the remainder are from 1970 onwards. Some of these references were from Journals, which predated Hansard. I have referred to all references as Hansard references for simplicity and because the majority of references were located in Hansard. With time, the number of references to the dress codes have increased slightly – 16 references are from 1980 to2000 while 26 references are from after 2000. However, this data is impacted by the lack of archival and digitally accessible or available records of proceedings (either Journals or Hansard) in many legislative assemblies. Therefore, it is difficult to draw any further conclusions from the references’ time frame beyond indicating that there may be a slight increase since 1970. Seventeen of the 63 references were general statements or guidance about the dress code. These have been omitted from further analysis as they reiterate the dress codes already explained above or indicate that Speakers will send a memo about those codes to members. The remaining 45 references all mention the clothes that a member is wearing during proceedings.
I have grouped these 45 references in broad categories based off the type of clothing mentioned. These categories include references to men on the wearing of jackets or ties (22), Indigenous, traditional, or cultural dress (5), and unconventional or casual dress (18). The actual item of clothing is not mentioned in four references. The five references to Indigenous, traditional, or cultural dress were either regarding Indigenous or Scottish clothing. I used the category of unconventional dress as a catch-all category for a variety of clothing that pushed the bounds of the dress code, including sports jerseys, rodeo attire, a scout uniform, bare feet, shorts, slogans or political pins, and hats. There were no more than one reference for each of these types of attire, except for two references to hats and jerseys, so categorizing them proved difficult. The commonality across all reference types was that most references pertained to men’s attire.
Of the 45 mentions considered, only two pertained to a women’s dress. Although this could be partially explained by the disproportionate number of men elected to the legislature, the ratio is still too stark for this to be the sole explanatory factor. This ratio is equivalent to 4.4 per cent of references to women’s dress, which is much lower than the percentage of women that have held office in provincial and territorial legislative assemblies since 1970. The remaining 43 references were all to men’s clothing; most of which were specifically about whether a male member was wearing a jacket or tie (22). The two references to women were both due to casual dress, one when a woman wore shorts and another where a woman wore a hoodie.
Of the references to jackets and ties, Speakers have reinforced the jacket and tie rule, with few exceptions. In an early example from 1969, Manitoba Speaker Ben Hanuschak defined the standard for appropriate attire as a jacket and tie for men.
There is a custom in the House of Commons…that the standard be such that it be neither anti nor post fashion trends but that it be what is commonly accepted by all as being appropriate…in the present generation and era I interpret this to call for the wearing of a jacket and tie by the men.
This rule continues to be enforced. In 1982 in Newfoundland, a member raised a Point of Order that another member was wearing a sweater. The Speaker agreed that this was against the dress code. The member in question responded that he received the sweater as a birthday gift the day prior and retired from the chamber to remove the sweater. In 1980, the Speaker in BC responded to a Point of Order about jackets and ties by reminding members that a jacket, tie, and shirt were required. The Speaker said they would not enforce it in this instance but would in the future. Another example from New Brunswick in 1981 features a member wearing a tie without a suit. It’s unclear exactly what the member was wearing from the Hansard reference. The Speaker also did not have a clear comment on whether this attire fit the dress code beyond commenting that “I am of the opinion that it does not look very good.” Although the jacket and tie rule has seen mixed enforcement, it has rarely been challenged. There are, however, examples of Speakers making exceptions to this rule due to hot temperatures. One of the earliest references to the dress code was in Manitoba in 1959. Members requested to remove their jackets and ties in committees amid hot temperatures and remarked that “it might expedite business.” Later, in 1994, a Nova Scotia member asked if the House of Assembly might revisit the jacket and tie rule given that they were sitting in July with no air conditioning. In another reference from Nova Scotia in 2015, the Speaker maintained that jackets and ties must be worn even in warm temperatures. The Speaker said, “I’ve also noted that some other members are donning some extremely casual attire as of late…I realize that the weather is starting to get a bit warm, but we’re all in this together.” Overall, precedent has affirmed that men must wear jackets and ties with some exceptions for hot weather.
Some Hansard references reflected the view that fashion is inherently feminine. For instance, then Alberta Speaker Ken Kowalski asked members to stop sending in notes about women member’s attire in 2006. He said he received notes about whether a particular women member was wearing a bra. He finished his comments by advising members that he is “not going to touch any of this” and to talk to their mothers about what to wear. In a 1971 reference from Newfoundland, then Premier Joey Smallwood returned from an international trip wearing a new silk suit. Media articles said he had shopped in a “lady-like fashion” while on his trip and the opposition mocked him for being overly fashionable, saying that he belonged at the “Academy Awards.” In Alberta in 1994, a member raised a Point of Order about another member’s brightly coloured suit. Although the bright suits were not an infraction against the dress code, the member wearing the suit commented that “my wife didn’t pick out my clothing.” The view that fashion is the realm of mothers, ladies, or wives is based in gendered assumptions. Historically, members have continually made the link between fashion and women. By making this connection, gendered norms are informally perpetuated throughout parliamentary institutions. The belief that fashion is a women’s business may also be part of the reason why the men’s dress code has been unchanged. Men may be reluctant to bring up changes related to clothing if they view fashion as an inherently feminine interest.
There were no references to Indigenous or cultural clothing as infractions to the dress code, although the Speaker in the Northwest Territories left the question open in one instance where a MLA was wearing a Mickey Mouse tie with a Dene vest. Another MLA brought forward a Point of Order, indicating that the tie was offensive to the high significance of the vest. The member responded that the tie was meant for children that may be watching the Hansard broadcast. The Speaker was unsure of how to proceed, given that the wearing of a tie was required for men but the tie was deemed offensive to the Dene vest. Ultimately, there was no resolution and proceedings continued. The blend of Indigenous attire and the jacket/tie requirement presents an interesting case for the dress code requirements, which suggest that members may exclusively wear either Indigenous attire or business attire, leaving little guidance for members wearing both. The example of the Dene vest reveals how the standard of a jacket and tie for men may present further difficulties for embracing diversity in parliaments.
In the text of dress codes, there is a notable emphasis on men’s attire. The jacket and tie requirement is the most long held standard on dress in Canadian parliaments. The rules for women were added and seem to appear as an afterthought. For instance, a guide for parliamentarians in the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island states “members must be attired in standard business dress, i.e. a jacket and tie for male members and the equivalent level of formality for female members.” None of the dress codes in provincial or territorial legislative assemblies specify items that women can or cannot wear – they are either expected to wear professional attire or wear something that could be considered comparable to a men’s jacket and tie. In this way, dress codes are reminders that women were additive to parliaments, not intrinsic. The Hansard references show that the jacket and tie rule is also the most enforced rule related to dress. The dress codes continue to affirm that the standard for professional attire is a man in a jacket and tie.
Although all legislative assemblies are accepting of Indigenous, cultural, or traditional attire, how this acceptance is articulated in the dress codes may lead to confusion in the future. If mentioned, Indigenous, cultural, or traditional attire is often in a separate clause. This does not recognize that Indigenous, cultural, or traditional attire may be formal or business attire in a non-Eurocentric view. The example cited above of the member wearing a Dene vest with a Mickey Mouse tie illustrates this dilemma. The member was wearing a tie that was deemed by the Speaker to be too informal to be worn with a Dene vest in the legislative assembly but removing it would be in violation of the dress code that required ties. Attire that is considered formal attire in other cultures, such as saris or kurta, is acceptable under the clause for Indigenous, traditional, or cultural attire in legislative assemblies. Instead of being included as an appropriate example of business attire, Indigenous, traditional, or cultural attire is treated as separate. This literal difference has little impact on the practical application of the rules as both business attire and Indigenous, traditional, or cultural attire are acceptable. The way the rules are crafted, however, maintains a Eurocentric view of business attire. In the future, this may be a point of friction in legislative assemblies and dress codes may change as part of the ongoing cultural shift in legislative assemblies to further adapt to diversity and move beyond colonial and Eurocentric ideas.
Dress codes also present barriers for gender diversity by mandating or suggesting that a man must wear a jacket and tie. The jacket and tie requirement serves to exclude members on the basis of gender by restricting the attire options available to those who identify as a man. In most legislative assemblies, men cannot wear attire that women members are permitted to wear. For instance, a man could not wear an uncollared shirt or turtleneck as it would not accommodate a tie. He could not wear a skirt, although exceptions have been made for traditional dress such as kilts. This restricts the options for attire available to men and those who are gender non-conforming, while also pinning acceptable women’s fashion to the standard of men in jackets and ties. Women are told to dress comparably to men while men’s fashion remains restricted to a jacket and a tie – this imbalance reflects a tension between gendered dress codes and maintaining the traditions that were primarily instituted when most politicians were men.