Dress codes pit style against substance on Parliament Hill

If men’s fashion reflects the times, then MPs in suits are an anachronism

The dress code in the house of commons can be restrictive. (Flickr/ Justin Trudeau,, cropped)

The dress code in the house of commons can be restrictive. (Flickr/ Justin Trudeau,, cropped)


When Confederation united the first four provinces in 1867, the legislature where bills would be debated and the government-held responsible was titled the House of Commons. “Commons” in this case refers to the communities that each Member of Parliament has been elected to represent.

Back then, limited suffrage meant that the constituents for each MP represented only a handful of the total population. Those who were elected often fit a cookie-cutter mould: men who had “respectable” careers as lawyers, newspapermen, entrepreneurs, and so on. Since then, the acceptable attire for men at the House of Commons has always been a dark three-piece suit coupled with whatever width of tie is in vogue.

Nowadays, the vote belongs to all Canadian citizens, and the criteria for who can run in public office has expanded to include women, people of colour, people who don’t identify with the gender binary, and workers. 

With a wider net cast, changes must come to recognize and accommodate the MPs that citizens feel best represent their ideas and concerns. One highly visible way to reflect this demographic shift in parliamentary representation is shockingly simple: the dress code.

The range of admissibility is at a point where three-piece suits are no longer the exclusive dress for men seeking to impress. We as a society have come to acknowledge that nobody needs to wear their Sunday-best every day to be deemed respectable.

Whenever I got job interviews, I was never rejected for opting out of a necktie or pairing a dress shirt with blue jeans. My attire was tasteful, yet relaxed. A style that could be worn in the hiring manager’s office or out on the street. 

We frequently see prominent people — celebrities, CEOs, academics, and politicians when out in the wild — foregoing the traditional suit-and-tie affair for denim pants and sport coats. Never have any of these people been told that eschewing waistcoats diminishes their credibility. Those that do are so far from the mainstream that the general public fails to give notice. However, there is one place where this outdated logic persists: Canada’s House of Commons.

According to the rules of order and decorum of the House, “… to be recognized to speak in debate … all Members, male or female, [must] dress in contemporary business attire. The contemporary practice and unwritten rule require, therefore, that male Members wear a jacket, shirt and tie as standard dress.” 

That’s right. If a male MP skips out on a tie or jacket then their words won’t matter in the slightest. Isn’t that just absurd? 

There are exceptions for certain special days, MPs who served in the military, and medical-related exemptions. “Contemporary business attire” sounds like a reasonable enough end point to me. Why should it be such a fuss if a member sports regular fit jeans and a white button-down with the option of a jacket? 

I am not suggesting that the Honourable Prime Minister should be allowed to address the Speaker in polka-dotted slacks, or that the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition attend Question Period in a leather biker get-up. 

“Clothes don’t make the man” is how that old saying goes, and if we wish to hold true to this maxim then we should recognize that our representatives in Parliament are still capable of the occasional bout of substance in spite of their style.