By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A new dress code for the Montana House of Representatives that bans jeans and warns women to watch skirt lengths and necklines has drawn the ire of female lawmakers, who say it suggests they cannot independently decide what attire is appropriate.
The wardrobe code was enacted by male leaders of the Republican-controlled House in advance of a legislative session that begins on Jan. 5. Most members of the chamber's Democratic minority are women, who say they were not consulted about new rules that target them for apparel infractions.
The code endorsed by incoming House Speaker Austin Knudsen advises male lawmakers to wear such clothing as suits and dress boots in a style termed "business formal."
It prohibits female legislators from wearing items like leggings and open-toed sandals, and cautions them to "be sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines."
House Minority Whip Jenny Eck said the sartorial standards sought to curb women's clothing choices, raising questions about their judgment and seeking to limit their independence.
"The code crosses a line. It singles women out for admonishment and suggests they can't be trusted to get up in the morning and dress appropriately," said the Democrat from the state capital, Helena.
Knudsen denied the code sought to curtail women's fashion or other freedoms. He said the rules, taken almost intact from a code used by the Wyoming Legislature, were designed to ensure that an air of professionalism and decorum prevailed.
He said a female staffer approached him about establishing the dress standards and that he agreed they would be helpful for the dozens of newly elected Montana House members.
"This was not directed at women," Knudsen said.
But the code has ignited debate on social media about a woman's right to choose clothing.
Knudsen, an attorney from the small northeast Montana town of Culbertson, said he would not appear in a courtroom in jeans or flip-flops and did not believe such apparel was suitable for the state House.
Eck said the code could be seen as out of step with a state known for its outdoors lifestyle, laid-back attitude and tendency toward casual attire.
Saying Montana residents had more serious matters on their minds, Eck said: "I've never had any constituent say to me: 'You women in the Legislature have to watch your skirt lengths.'"
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)