What MPs wear in the House of Commons

Let’s talk about British politics. Specifically, let’s talk about the clothes involved in British politics. During June’s heat wave, the House of Commons’ speaker announced that male MPs would not have to wear jackets and ties.

The building’s not air conditioned. I mention that because I come from America, as do a fair number of my readers, and the U.S. has reached to a point where people kind of assume air conditioning in public place. But not much in Britain is air conditioned. Summers are cool here, at least by American standards. You don’t need it, except when (briefly) you do.

trebarwith 049

Irrelevant photo: Thrift, growing on a wall.

When the Financial Times wrote about the momentous changes that tieless, jacketless men would cause, it said the Commons had taken “haphazard steps” toward modernization—which it spelled –isation, but never mind that.

“MPs are allowed to use phones in the chamber, but are still required to employ archaic language rules, including not referring to each other by name. Independent recommendations to allow breast-feeding during debates have not been implemented. There is no electronic voting.”

It was only last February that the Commons clerks stopped wearing wigs.

Allowing phones has been a mixed blessing. When parliament opened (that was also in June), one MP tweeted a photo of the of the occasion, allowing everybody on Twitter to notice something she hadn’t: The MP in front of her was looking at his phone instead of listening to the speeches and his screen seemed to show a surprising amount of flesh.

Scandal, scandal, scandal!

The reason the speaker could rule on ties and jackets is that wearing them is a convention, not a rule. The ban on breast feeding is surely also a convention, since males rarely do that and rules date back to the days when women not only couldn’t become MPs, they couldn’t vote and were only supposed to breathe if their husbands felt it wouldn’t upset the household. So I’m guessing no one thought to write a rule against it–the it here being breast feeding, which I mention because, as always, we’ve wandered a bit.

Maybe we can hope for progress on that (again, that’s breast feeding) in the next decade or six. By which time the creepizoid with the phone may have moved into well-deserved obscurity.

And if he hasn’t? One or both of the following things will happen: 1) After initially being embarrassed/outraged/threatened/whatevered (I don’t claim to understand all the elements that drive him, but I do believe it’s more than the most obvious one) by seeing a woman breast feed in public, and after making obnoxious jokes about her, he’ll gradually become desensitized and maybe even come to understand that this was the original purpose of the equipment. 2) He’ll get older. The hormones he’s been enjoying so much will lose interest in him and move to someone younger and more promising, after which he’ll be left with nothing but a sad, vague memory of why all that used to seem so interesting.

Oh, and/or 3) He’ll become prime minister and swear that wasn’t him in the picture and besides, he was doing research on how easily children can access pornography on their phones and how damaging it can be to their careers. He’ll launch a commission to look into pornography. Et cetera.

Enough about him.

The tie-and-jacket business ended up all over the papers because this is Britain we’re talking about. It has its traditions. In fact, MP Peter Bone—a Conservative—said it was an example of dumbing down. I don’t know what he had to say about the wigs, but I’m sure he’ll be apoplectic when breast feeding’s allowed during debates.

The odd thing about his comment is that he may have been one of the people who rose to speak without a tie. I’m not even going to try to make sense of this.

Nothing I’ve found says what female MPs are allowed to do in a heat wave. They’re supposed to dress with comparable formality, whatever that means.

No MP is supposed to wear a tee shirt—especially one with a slogan—but occasionally one of them does and the fact that it’s frowned on means it gets all the more attention. When an MP wore one saying, “This is what a feminist looks like,” it made the papers. Ditto the one that said, “No more page 3” (a reference to the pictures naked women with improbable breasts–highly improbable breasts–that used to appear on page 3 of the Mail). [Sorry–it’s the Sun. I’m leaving the error so the comment correcting it makes sense.]

But MPs don’t get thrown out for wearing a tee shirt. What happens is that they become invisible to the speaker, who won’t call on them if they want to speak. On the other hand, if the tee shirt speaks loudly enough, that doesn’t matter.

MPs are also not allowed to wear armor in the chamber. I’m guessing that wasn’t a problem during the heat wave, but it is disappointing. If I were an MP, I would so love to do that. They’re also not allowed to speak Welsh (remember, the English conquered the Welsh way back when, and that kind of thing does linger; as far as I can tell, they’re allowed to speak in any other language), call each other by their names (that was mentioned above in a quote, but it’s so strange it’s worth repeating), or call each other pipsqueak, swine, rat, tart, or a few other out-of-date insults. The more modern ones don’t seem to be banned.

They also can’t accuse each other of lying or hypocrisy. Ignorance and malice, I think, are allowed but probably not done.

The BBC says,  “Breaking with convention has always been a way of making a political point. Oliver Cromwell wore plain, and not very clean, linen made by a country tailor, and a hat without a hat band.”

In 1900, it says, new rules were introduced to deal with the tall hats that were in fashion. It quotes Alfred Kinnear, an MP, to explain how it worked:

” ‘At all times remove your hat on entering the House, and put it on upon taking your seat and remove it again on rising for whatever purpose. If the MP asks a question he will stand, and with his hat off and he may receive the answer of the Minister seated and with his hat on.’ ”

Have you got that? Good, because it goes on, no longer quoting Kinnear.

“Until 1998, MPs were able to wear an ‘opera hat’ to draw attention to themselves to raise a point of order. Two of the black top hats were kept in the Commons, but they were scrapped by the Select Committee on Commons Modernisation because they made the House look ridiculous. [No? Really?]

” ‘There are still tags in the cloakroom for MPs to hang their swords on,’ says journalist Quentin Letts. ‘It’s a little red ribbon next to their coat hooks.’ ”

I seem to remember a female MP being told she couldn’t cross the lobby unless she was wearing heels, and there was an almighty flap over that, but I haven’t been able to find anything about it online. Who’d have thought there were so many unrelated issues involving MPs and shoes?

Traditionally, the speaker of the house wore what’s called court dress—knee breeches, silk stockings, and buckled shoes, and over that a silk gown with (or without, in the current speaker’s case) “a train and a mourning rosette (also known as a ‘wig bag’) over the flap collar at the back.”

I have no idea what that last bit means but that’s fine. I’ve found I can lead an entire life with no understanding of wig bags and mourning rosettes. Or silk gowns. Let’s think of it as an elaborate way of saying they look fabulous—in a bizarre and dated sort of way.

But that’s the everyday outfit. For state occasions, “The Speaker wears a robe of black satin damask trimmed with gold lace and frogs with full bottomed wig and, in the past, a tricorne hat.”

A full-bottomed wig is but the kind that flows over the shoulder, as opposed to the shortened wigs barristers wear. A frog is a bit of elaborate trim, not something you find in the local pond.

Recent speakers have been chipping away at this. Betty Boothroyd decided not to wear the wig. Michael Martin refused the knee breeches, the silk stockings, and the buckled shoes. The current speaker, John Bercow, has given up on court dress altogether, although once you eliminate the stockings, breeches, buckled shoes, wig, and three-cornered hat, I’m not sure what’s left. He wore morning dress under the state robe at state openings.

I’m not actually sure what morning dress is. In my house, it’s a bathrobe over a nightshirt, but then I’m not British and I think I’ve pretty well established that I don’t know how to behave. We can safely assume that’s not what he means.

“As seen at the 2015 State Opening of Parliament, Bercow further toned down the state robe by removing the gold frogging on the sleeves and train, so that it now resembles a pro-chancellor’s robe at certain universities. However, he returned to wearing the traditional robe in 2016.”

Which is a relief, because we all hate to see Britain dumbed down. And I, at least, need something to make fun of.


On a vaguely related topic, the Guardian ran a letter (forget the link—I’ve worn myself out) about how teachers were supposed to dress and behave in the 1950s. It quoted a handbook warning them not to get drunk on Saturdays or open the door in their braces. If you’re American, those aren’t on your teeth, they’re your suspenders, but if you’re British they’re not your suspenders because suspenders are those old-fashioned things women wore to hold up their stockings—the things Americans called garters.

Are you still with me?

A second letter writer—the Guardian’s letter writers are both insane and wondrous—responded with a tale about a teacher who not only got drunk on Saturdays but was found “wallowing in the horse trough outside his local declaiming: ‘Women and children first.’ ”

So no, Britain’s not all formality and good behavior.


I was going to end this by writing about what the queen wears to parliament on the rare occasions when she’s allowed in, but I’ve gone on too long. Another time.

I can’t end, though, without adding that the Church of England’s governing body, the Synod, just voted to allow the clergy to conduct services without wearing the whole formal regalia of–well, don’t ask me what-all it’s called. Let’s just say robes and leave it at that, okay?

Less formal churches have, apparently, already dispensed with the robes, so this only confirms and formalizes an existing trend, but since the Church of England is the Church of England, the change won’t become canon law until the queen approves. I don’t know if she can refuse her approval. Britain has an unwritten constitution (yes, it’s complicated; no, I’m still trying to understand it), which is another way of saying I wouldn’t know where to look if I wanted to find out the limits of her actual powers.

Anyway (she said cheerily), the world is ending. MPs can go tieless, priests are holding services dressed like ordinary mortals, and that teacher a few paragraphs up? He’s probably still in the horse trough, declaiming, “Women and children first.”

In his braces.

58 thoughts on “What MPs wear in the House of Commons

  1. I think I would like a job where I got to wear gold frogging, or any coloured frogging for that matter…

    I also want to be allowed to wear an opera hat for attention. Actually I wear so many hats, that not wearing one gets me more attention so maybe that one is not important.

    I wonder if teacher were allowed to ope the door in suspenders (of the British variety)? Presumably this would require a public hanging…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “Women and children first…” at least chivalry hasn’t died. Sounds like your MPs, priests and teachers have dumbed-down and dressed-down to what we refer to as business casual. Let us know when the men start wearing their pants (trousers) beneath their butts, allowing full view of their (whatever you call) underwear. Then you’ve reached American youth style. Best not inform the Queen.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. It’s easy to forget that most traditions began for a reason and that they can become a form of habit, even tribalism, which everyone indulges in. There is also, at times, a relationship between traditions and standards. Rightly or wrongly, most people make an initial judgement about someone’s appearance and it’s hard to grab that initial respect – for, say, a teacher, if they look like a slob. As some unfortunately do. There is, of course, a time for traditions to go – the precise moment for this escapes me. I’m afraid I don’t get the bit about breast-feeding or using ‘phones during debates – if you want to do anything other than attend the debate, go somewhere else. More pertinently, it would be nice to see our MPs selected on the basis of intellect and an interest in public service, with fewer lawyers and party political bigots with chips on their shoulders, or governed by a vested interest of one sort or another. Idealistic of me, I know. I’m sure they get this right in the USA, don’t they? House of Commons – current building is Victorian, I think heavily damaged by a bomb in WW2 and rebuilt in the 1950s.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m curious about the “heat wave”. Because the one time I’ve been in England was in June. There was one day in Exeter, when the locals were apologizing to us about the “frightful heat”. The temperature had finally reached 80º (F) for the first time on our trip. It was a choir trip, and we finally were able to take off our sweaters. And then we laid our choir robes out on the lawn of Exeter Cathedral like beach towels, flopped down on them and soaked up some beautiful warmth.

    The heat index here today is supposed to reach 105ºF.

    Liked by 2 people

    • 105? Holy shit. Where are you? I’ve been in 103-degree heat and was completely useless. I spent an hour or so moving papers around (we were, in theory, working from home that month) before I realized I hadn’t changed anything other than their location.

      But yeah, 80 is enough to wilt most people here. In fairness, your body does set itself to whatever temperature it’s around, but it still strikes me as pretty funny.


      • 105º is the index of how the weather feels with heat plus humidity. They are expecting that for this afternoon, followed by torrential thunderstorms! I’m in the DC area where this is not uncommon for July and August. Needless to say, everything here is air conditioned.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Most droll, I like your witty take on the highways and byways of the British establishment. So, why I wonder, do whole sections of the electorate feel ever so disconnected from their elected representatives in their Palace of Westminster ???

    Liked by 2 people

    • When shouting isn’t accurate–or maybe as a routine thing; I’m not sure–they all stand up and march to different rooms to indicate how they’re voting. Since the House of Commons is too small to seat all its members, I’m not sure how either system works in practice.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Neither have I, but my niece (I’ve been told) did sometimes sleep in a file drawer when she was little and her mother was working. And given that the hours are irregular at best, and long, I’m guessing it’s one of those areas where compromise is needed.

      Most MPs aren’t actually in the House most of the time (photos of many debates show an near-empty chamber), and I believe they get called in at the last minute for votes.


      • These days many working mums’ hours are long and irregular, but they don’t bring their babies to work. They either have some kind of childcare or they don’t work. Some work from home, I know, but that’s not quite the same. A baby in the workplace would be a huge distraction for the mother and her colleagues.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The problem, at least as I understand it, is that if an MP becomes pregnant, she’d need to either resign or keep working–she can hardly take time off and expect someone else to fill her job until she comes back. So on very rare occasions (and my best guess is that they’d be vanishingly rare), she might find herself with a hungry baby, no child care (it’s not a job with predictable hours), and a vote or debate she can’t skip. Not an ideal combination, and I’m sure not a frequent one, but one you can’t completely rule out.


  6. Apparently, until Sir Goldsworthy Gurney (prolific Victorian gentleman-scientist type chap living in Bude, Cornwall and with the sort of name that you would expect a proper Cornishman to sport) installed his new fangled ‘Bude-light’ limelight system in the House of Commons, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bude-Light) nobody could have known who was wearing what and in what colour, as it was lit only by candles. I would imagine that in order to be seen, you had to wear something as bright as possible which makes the lack of invention of day glo Hi-Vis wear until much later a bit of a mystery.

    Another thought, perhaps the shouting came about because, before proper lighting, nobody could actually see that you were pointlessly waving your arms about, or indeed your silly hat, to gain attention. Then again, perhaps the English nature of talking loudly somehow making you more likely to be understood in any context was already in place

    Improved personal visibility due to lighting perhaps explains the gradual decline in the ‘silly costume’ aspect of Parliament but is no explanation for how stupid it is protesting about a bell being silent for four years and how long it’s taking to consign all similar Parliament ‘traditions’ – I see today’s wailing is about the light showing Parliament is sitting is also to be extinguished – to a long historical past too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bear, what would I do without you? I didn’t even know there was a light showing that Parliament was sitting. Wouldn’t you know I’d hear about it just as it goes out. Story of my life.

      In honor of the darkness engulfing those old Parliaments, maybe we could convince them to introduce a hi-vis top hat–possibly even striped in screaming yellow and orange to remind us of the Cat in the Hat.

      Liked by 1 person

      • From Wiki…
        “The Ayrton Light, lit when either House of Parliament is sitting after dark. It was installed in 1885 at the request of Queen Victoria so that she could see from Buckingham Palace when the members were sitting and named after Ayrton.”

        So before Gurney’s lighting system they would be sitting in the dark, in the dark.
        I think.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Hey! Don’t you start with our ‘s’es where you lot have wrongly put ‘zee’s’. You even pronounce z wrong! It’s Jay ZED not Jay ZEE! :D

    He he! If you were being water boarded (…stay with me here) you’d be immediately outed as a US (or other) spy with your fundamental Mail / Sun page 3 error.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Never fear – the Church of England still requires some vesting, just not the elaborate robing of yore – those garments must have rotted in fairly short order in those un-air conditioned cathedrals.

    Liked by 2 people

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