Tuxedo? Business suit? Dress up or dress sensibly? It’s not the Oscars . . . it was the first evening Annual Message. American citizens are accustomed to seeing the President of the United States deliver prime-time addresses to a worldwide audience. However, when presidential night-time addresses were rare events, a previous generation of Members and their spouses were puzzled by what constituted proper fashion protocol at a speech that slowly emerged as a major policy—and social—statement.
At the start of the second session of the 74th Congress (1935–1937), President Franklin Delano Roosevelt requested a Joint Session to deliver his second Annual Message. The January 1936 address was the first time that an Annual Message was given at night. It was only the second time that Congress assembled in the evening to hear a presidential address (the first being Woodrow Wilson’s request before a Joint Session for Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917).
Between 1917 and 1936, evening attire had changed considerably. The fashion industry sought to bring the elegance of the silver screen to the masses, and with that came the innovation of ready-to-wear and rentable evening attire. As formal wear became more accessible, designers began to offer more comfortable styles as well as more fabric and color options. The tailcoat quickly lost ground as the more casual dinner jacket and evening gown grew popular. What resulted was a bit of confusion regarding what exactly entailed formal versus semi-formal evening dress, which made differentiating between “white tie” and “black tie” etiquette more essential.
With less than two days’ notice before the evening speech, questions flew through official Washington about dress etiquette. Members of Congress wondered what they should wear to a night session. A diplomatic protocol expert from the State Department recommended dressing “white tie” at first, but then advised Members to defer to the President’s choice of dress. White House sources speculated that the President would wear a business suit, but their only clue was his typical daytime outfit: a cutaway suit. Speaker Joseph Byrns of Tennessee said, “I suppose I’ll come along just as I opened the House.” As for his House colleagues, Byrns mused, “Some [Members] may not even put on a clean collar.”
As for women Members and women attendees in the House Galleries, a White House aide suggested they wear evening or semi-evening dresses for the occasion. Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas insisted, “I’m not going to wear evening clothes. It’s a business session.” Many women followed the lead of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wore a “dark afternoon gown.” A reporter noted the “somber effect of the galleries” created by spectators’ dark suits and dresses. Speaker Byrns’s wife, Julia, however, broke the mold by wearing a burgundy red dress. Not to be outdone, Elinor Morgenthau, the wife of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., wore an olive green gown.
In the end, President Roosevelt, Speaker Byrns, and Vice President John Nance Garner of Texas wore frock coats. Most of the Members wore their working clothes (that is, business suits). Although function trumped fashion for most Members of Congress, news reports did note that a retired Member in attendance wore a tuxedo.
Sources: Washington Post, January 2, 1936; Washington Post, January 4, 1936.