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House dress code stirs up a flap; Helena Rep. Jenny Eck calls it 'discriminatory'

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Some Democratic legislators are critical and social-media posters are having a field day ridiculing a strict new dress code for the floor of the 2015 Montana Legislature.

The House Republican leadership issued a one-page pronouncement late last week, declaring that representatives “are required to dress in formal business attire during the session.” It also applies to legislative staff, members of the media, interns and aides while on the House, and apparently, the Senate floor.

“It was something that a female staff member asked me if that was something we could do,” said incoming House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, declining to identify her. “She looked at some neighboring states. Now here we are a-twitter.”

But Knudsen said the buck stops with him, and he spent much of the weekend dealing with the dress code issue.

He said he told one Democratic legislator if there are legitimate concerns that can be addressed, he’s willing to make changes.

The House Democratic leadership, with a majority of women, was not consulted, said incoming House Minority Whip Jenny Eck, D-Helena.

“If we had been, we could have avoided this whole debacle,” Eck said. “I hope we can get rid of this document and start over. All that to be said is: Please dress in formal business attire that is befitting the office you hold.”

The dress code contains bullet points such as this: “Women should be sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines.”

“That phrase is right out of the 19th Century as far as I’m concerned,” Eck said. “Women can be trusted to get up in the morning and dress appropriately. How would it be enforced? Would the sergeant of arms be the clothes police checking our skirt lengths and cleavage?“

Eck said the dress code singles out women for admonishment if they’re not sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines.

When the code became public knowledge on Friday, posters on Twitter, Facebook and other social-media sites teed off, calling it a “junior-high dress code” -- although some took the humorous approach. “Banning fleece? In Montana?” one poster asked on Twitter. “Isn’t it cold there?”

The code says women must wear a suit or dress slacks, skirt, jacket and dress blouse or “suit-like dresses” and “appropriate shoes.” Flip-flops, tennis shoes and open-toe sandals are inappropriate, the code says.

It goes on to declare: “Leggings are not considered dress pants.”

Jeans or denim material, including colored denim, is verboten on the House floor. Also banned are fleece and jersey (sweatshirt) material.

Men, meanwhile, must wear suits, or sports jackets and dress pants, ties, dress shirts and dress shoes or dress boots.

There will be no casual Fridays or Saturdays, the code says, and the “House and Senate” leadership will be responsible for enforcing the code and notifying those members who are in violation.

Eck said she’s knocked on thousands of doors in the Helena area in her 2012 and 2014 campaigns for the House.

“I’ve had people talk to be about mental health and cancer in the family,” she said. “I’ve never had anyone talk to be about how the Legislature is dressed.”

Eck said she doesn’t think those who adopted the code had any ill intent or meant to cause offense, but “that doesn’t make me feel any better. … It’s a discriminatory document.”

"Women can be trusted to get up in the morning and dress appropriately."

Incoming House Minority Whip Jenny Eck, D-Helena


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