Hats off: Ilhan Omar and the long, strange history of congressional ‘decorum’
The history of Congress is weird and wonderful and full of hats.
Minnesota Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar is part of that history now, working to upend — or at least amend — the U.S. House’s 181-year-old hat ban.
If she succeeds, Omar, who wears a headscarf, will be able to work without wardrobe changes.
If she succeeds, one storied congressional tradition will end and another, even older, tradition will take its place.
In its earliest days, the House was a sea of hats. Congressmen wore hats. Visitors in the galleries wore hats. Covering your head in the House wasn’t just commonplace, it was the patriotic thing to do.
The House followed the lead of the British House of Commons, where MPs went about their business with hats on their heads for centuries.
“The members sit with their hats on or off as they please,” Rep. Thomas Hubbard of New York wrote his wife, Phebe, on Christmas Day 1817. Two centuries later, congressional historians wove that letter into a juicy account of the long battle to ban hats from the House. The blog, Whereas: Stories from the People’s House, is essential reading for anyone who enjoys stories about lawmakers trying to brain each other with spittoons.
Original Recipe Congress was a place where members “spat copious amounts of chewing tobacco, smoked cigars, carried weapons, swilled liquor procured from no fewer than 12 vendors in the Capitol, and unfurled newspapers at their desks which they used to prop up their feet during debate,” the blog reports. Members dueled and brawled and burst into song in the House chamber. Virginia Rep. John Randolph liked to bring his dogs onto the House floor and if a colleague complained, Randolph clobbered him over the head with a cane and the dogs stayed put.
The hat debate raged for more than a decade. Critics bitterly complained that the thicket of hats on the House floor was uncouth, and worse, muffled the acoustics and made it hard to hear debates. But congressmen like John Marable of Tennessee clung to tradition, and to their hats.
Marable claimed his bald head needed protection: “in the cold weather to keep off the cold, and in warm weather to keep off the flies.”
During one of the many hat debates, Rep. John Patton of Virginia argued that the “apparently indecorous practice of wearing our hats” was, in fact, a proud symbol of a Congress free from White House meddling.
“Whenever, if ever, our executive magistrates shall attempt to employ any improper influence on this body,” Patton said during an 1833 debate, “let us be found with our hats on.”
But they were waging a losing battle against gentrification.
Congress banned head covering during its 20th session, in 1837. More than 180 years later, a member of the incoming 116th Congress argues that the decision to cover or uncover her head should be her own.
“This is not the last ban I’m going to work to lift,” Omar said last week, announcing on social media that she would work with the new Democratic leadership to craft an exception to the House rules for religious headgear like hijabs or yarmulkes.
Omar’s proposal grabbed headlines, and hearkened back to a congressional tradition almost as old as the hat ban itself — paying more attention to what female politicians wear than what they say.
Consider the headlines in 1969, when the first congresswoman showed up in a pair of pants.
U.S. Rep. Charlotte Reid, R-Ill., strolled into the chambers “in a black wool, bell-bottomed pantsuit” and her colleagues rushed to the floor to gawk.
“One incredulous congressman told [Reid], ‘I was told there was a lady here in trousers, so I had to come over and see for myself,’” the Washington Post reported at the time. She noted that “[Rep.] Gerald Ford told me he thought it was great and I should do it more often.”
Minnesota is sending five new representatives to Congress next year. They’ll climb marble staircases worn down by millions of tourist footsteps and raise their voices in chambers where great speeches have echoed. They’ll learn the quirky traditions and customs and rules of decorum that link them to the founders and to every other public servant to sit in those chambers.
Maybe they’ll walk over to the Senate dining room and order a cup of the bean soup that’s been on the menu since 1903, just because Minnesota Sen. Knute Nelson expressed a fondness for it.
Some traditions, you keep.
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