Even worse, [the Foreign Service] were often further described as having stripes on their pants. Nineteen-fifties-era Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy had this in mind when he lambasted Secretary of State Dean Acheson as a “pompous diplomat in striped pants.” That’s right, he wore stripes. Can you believe it? It’s a wonder he created NATO and designed the Marshall Plan while wearing those ridiculous things. It remains unclear exactly why stripes on pants signify weakness—maybe workers who donned suits weren’t working the land like real men—but the connection endures. More than 60 years after McCarthy’s insult, Rush Limbaugh is still attacking those not man enough to put on some solid-colored trousers. The “stripes-pants crowd up in Foggy Bottom,” the radio host told listeners last year, were “all atwitter” that Obama thought of striking Syria without congressional approval.
Jordan Michael Smith writes in Politico about the history of conservatives marking liberals as effete, affluent, out-of-touch “eggheads.” One of the points he mentions is the appellation “striped-pants,” as applied to the Foreign Service. Smith doesn’t say it, but one presumes that this phrase, attached to diplomats, may refer to morning dress, the form of daytime formal dress that pairs a dark coat and contrasting waistcoat with striped gray pants.
I’m sure it wasn’t the first controversy over diplomacy and formal dress. When the Japanese Prime Minister visited a shrine to that nation’s World War II dead, it set off an international firestorm. Partly, this was because of the solemnity and “officialness” lent to the visit by the fact he was wearing formal garb.