The notion that fashion will be top of mind on Wednesday, when President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will take the highest oath of office in a country riddled with a deadly pandemic and the aftermath of a violent insurrection ignited by the sitting president, seems an unlikely bet.
Then again, 2021 is already full of surprises.
Take, for instance, the brouhaha over Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ first go as a Vogue cover star for the February issue—a controversy that stirred up social media for 48 hours with nary a mention of what Harris actually said in the accompanying interview with journalist Alexis Okeowo.
When the print cover was leaked on social media last week, some questioned if it was a test shot. Others immediately lamented the lack of the so-called “Vogue treatment” given to Harris, who stood casually on a pink and green backdrop—a nod to her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha—dressed in her go-to look: a blazer, tee, slim trousers, pearls and Converse sneakers.
Many, possibly even the Harris team, according to reports, were exasperated as to why the digital cover—a second shot of Harris dressed in a crisp light blue Michael Kors suit—was not used for the print edition instead.
The sartorial ruckus led Anna Wintour, Vogue’s notoriously tight-lipped editor-in-chief, to defend the publication’s creative decision. In a statement to the New York Times, Wintour said it was not Vogue’s intention to “diminish the importance of the vice president-elect’s incredible victory.” Rather, Wintour said the goal was to use a less formal photo that was “very, very accessible, and approachable, and really reflected the hallmark of the Biden-Harris campaign.”
All that to say that striking on a universally agreed-upon look and tone for the first female and first Black and Asian American elected as vice president on the cover of Vogue would be no easy feat, and unfortunately, the work of photographer Tyler Mitchell, the only Black photographer to have ever shot a Vogue cover, was overshadowed.
The cover controversy, however, served as a reminder of the political power that fashion wields. It also brought to light one thing that fashion and politics have in common: critics.
High-profile events like fashion weeks, the Oscars and the Met Gala take precedence on the fashion industry’s calendar but the fashion worn to the U.S. Presidential Inauguration is in an echelon of its own in that it belongs to the annals of history. The photos will be archived, the message will be broadcast around the world and the articles of clothing worn on the historically cold day will be dissected by critics and admirers alike, and may even land in the Smithsonian’s collections, served up on display for future generations.
“An inauguration can set the tone for the entire administration in many areas, including fashion, and it often provides our first glimpse of the first family’s public face,” said Kimberly Chrisman Campbell, a fashion historian and author of Worn on This Day: The Clothes That Made History.
The fashion choices made by John and Jacqueline Kennedy on Inauguration Day in 1961—the first to be televised in color—certainly lived up to the people’s Camelot fantasies, not to mention signaled a turning point in U.S. politics and fashion. Though polished and meticulously chosen, the Kennedys’ modern aesthetic resonated with the emerging baby-boomer generation.
“Although Kennedy wore the expected inaugural uniform of a morning suit and a top hat, he took the hat off almost immediately,” said Chrisman Campbell. The youngest president ever elected hated wearing hats, and, as a result, they went out of fashion almost entirely by the end of his presidency, she added. No president since has worn a top hat to his inauguration.
Prior to Jacqueline Kennedy, standard inaugural fare for women was a long fur coat and a corsage—a look worn by Mami Eisenhower and Bess Truman, who were both sexagenarians during their time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But just 31 years old when she became first lady, Kennedy emanated a sense of youthfulness and classic modernity with her simple but stylish wool A-line coat adorned with giant buttons and a narrow band of fur at the collar that matched the fur muff she carried.
“Photos of the inauguration show her surrounded by former first ladies, who look very old-fashioned in their heavy furs and fussy little hats with bows and veils,” Chrisman Campbell said.
Photos also show the First Lady dressed that day in light blue, however, the Oleg Cassini coat and matching dress and simple Halston pillbox hat were in fact fawn beige. Advancements in color correction had yet to peak, but alas, the color was cemented in memories. In 2017, fashion watchers immediately drew erroneous comparisons between the color of Kennedy’s ensemble and Melania Trump’s light blue custom Ralph Lauren dress and jacket. Trump’s retro silhouette, however, was perhaps a nod to Camelot.
Nonetheless, Kennedy’s inaugural look went on to become the unofficial playbook for First Lady fashion: monochromatic color, matching accessories and timeless design. It follows many of the same elements that Queen Elizabeth II uses to stand out in a crowd, yet gives each First Lady enough runway to put an individual stamp on her look. “Jackie O was like a present,” said Tonya Blazio-Licorish, assistant archivist for Women’s Wear Daily. “She was packaged so well.”
Few have followed in Jackie O’s footsteps as effortlessly as Michelle Obama, who fashion historians regard as a staunch ally of the fashion industry. Though she was not averse to wearing a metallic Atelier Versace column dress or a red Alexander McQueen gown to White House state dinners, during her historic eight years as the first Black First Lady, Obama famously championed emerging and diverse designers like Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung and Brandon Maxwell, as well as affordable mainstream brands like J. Crew.
Obama’s budding relationship with fashion was evident on day one of the job when she didn’t dial up the go-to designers of prior first ladies, such as Oscar de la Renta or Carolina Herrera. Rather, the lemongrass jacket and dress she wore on Inauguration Day in 2009 was by the late Isabel Toledo, a Cuban-American designer who was simultaneously well known in the industry and under-the-radar of most consumers until that day. The green gloves were courtesy of J. Crew; the shoes, Jimmy Choo.
Four years later, Obama cut an even sleeker and more confident look on Inauguration Day sporting a Thom Browne coat cinched with a bejeweled belt by J. Crew. Her purple leather gloves complemented daughters Malia and Sasha’s wool coats—exclusives by the mall brand’s children’s offshoot, Crewcuts—and together, created a contemporary picture of a strong, united family.
Read between the (fashion) lines
If Kennedy’s White House-era style was aspirational, Obama’s was accessible, yet both first ladies used fashion to express sentiments of hope, joy and optimism.
“Fashion is a form of communication, and a very effective one,” Chrisman Campbell said. “It sends all kinds of messages, even if they don’t consciously register with the audience, or the wearers themselves.”
“We speak though our clothes,” said Carmela Spinelli, a fashion historian for the Savannah College of Art Design—figuratively and sometimes literally.
For his second inauguration, Abraham Lincoln wore a black Brooks Brothers overcoat that visually sent a message: the quilted lining featured a shield of stars and stripes and an American eagle carrying a banner reading “One Country, One Destiny,” a line from a favorite speech by Daniel Webster.
But you don’t have to look that back far to find political fashion with a message. This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has become one of the most influential power dressers in U.S. politics, delivered a pointed message when she re-wore the black dress and gold necklace she appeared in during President Donald Trump’s first impeachment in 2019 to the second historic impeachment vote against the 46th president.
Side-by-side comparisons of the “little black impeachment dress” lit up social media, with some describing the three-quarter sleeve dress as mourning clothing—reflective of the sad state of the country—and others calling it a good luck charm to secure the second successful impeachment.
And in 2018, following President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for asylum seekers, First Lady Melania Trump was criticized for her apparent insensitivity when she wore a cringe-worthy green Zara jacket emblazoned with the phrase “I really don’t care, do u?” during a trip to an immigration facility that housed migrant children separated from their parents near the Texas-Mexico border.
In a statement to Business Insider, then-Trump spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said the outerwear choice bore no hidden message. President Trump, however, went on to contradict Grisham in a tweet that stated: “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” written on the back of Melania’s jacket, refers to the Fake News Media. Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!”
The First Lady echoed the president a few months later when she told ABC News that the jacket’s message was intended for the left-wing media and her critics. “And I want to show them that I don’t care. You could criticize. Whatever you wanna say, you can say. But it will not stop me to do what I feel is right,” she said.
Inauguration Day, however, is traditionally a time when first ladies opt to make more unifying statements, and the colors they choose to wear on the day play role in communicating that narrative. Red, blue, and white are popular for obvious reasons, but first ladies have also chosen more personal colors that become synonymous with their time in the White House, Chrisman Campbell said.
Eisenhower, for one, chose an inaugural ball gown in her favorite color, pastel pink. The First Lady thought it was the most flattering color on her, and she ended up popularizing it as “Mamie pink” in the 1950s, Chrisman Campbell said. Lady Bird Johnson’s satin yellow inaugural ball gown and matching coat were an homage to her Texan roots.
The bright red hue of Nancy Reagan’s inauguration suit became her signature color. In fact, “Reagan Red,” is thought to have been the inspiration for designating Republican states as red states, Chrisman Campbell said.
First Lady fashion is also part of the political spin-wheel, often masterminded by a designer, a press secretary or a team.
The Reagans inherently gave the White House a Hollywood glow-up, but the First Lady’s relationship with California-based designer James Galanos, who according to Spinelli, was the closest the industry had seen to an American couturier, played a key role in developing her elegant image.
Mentored and adored by designer Ralph Rucci, Galanos was at the helm of several of Reagan’s sleek and sophisticated looks, including the one-shoulder column dress she wore to the inaugural ball in 1981. “It wasn’t as loud as ‘the Hollywood element’ would be, but it certainly had that dazzle,” Spinelli said of the First Lady’s style.
Galanos, she added, does not get enough attention in the history of American fashion, but his work speaks for itself, particularly the “exquisite” surface detail, tailoring and fabric of his garments. “You turn a James Galanos dress inside out, and wear it inside out,” she said. “That kind of that quality is really important.”
Other fashion choices by first ladies are more prescient and become interesting “annals of inaugural fashion,” Spinelli said.
The color choice or designer of Rosalynn Carter’s inaugural ball gown in 1977 wasn’t as noteworthy as the story behind the chiffon dress itself. In a move that conscious consumers would praise today but was considered an outrage at the time, Carter re-wore the dress she donned for her husband’s inauguration as governor of Georgia in 1971.
This, Chrisman Campbell added, kicked off Carter’s “tenure as a thrifty First Lady who made her own clothes.”
While Dr. Jill Biden’s pattern-making skills are unknown, we do know that she will become the first First Lady to keep a full-time job as an educator outside of the White House, which is bound to be reflected in her day-to-day fashion.
“Dr. Biden will have lots of sartorial choices to choose from, and she’s got a mind of her own,” Spinelli said. “She knows the image that she wants to present.”
Though Dr. Biden is known for balancing classic labels like Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren with their contemporaries like Christian Siriano (which she wore to the Democratic National Convention), Spinelli said she expects to see her try to help bolster the profile of a lesser-known designer on Inauguration Day—a direction that may be influenced by the amount time she spent with Michelle Obama.
“Christopher John Rogers is really hot right now and I would love…to see her in some of his things,” she added.
For the first time next week, extra attention will be paid to what the second family wears when Harris takes her historic oath. And her fashion will be scrutinized in a way that no other vice president has experienced, Blazio-Licorish said.
“She’ll wear a pant suit, but it’s going to be powerful,” she said, adding that critics will look for Harris, whose mother is Indian and father is Jamaican, to wear Black designers. Blazio-Licorish said she is unsure if Harris will go that route for the inauguration, but said she hopes to see the VP wear something from Indian-American fashion designer Naeem Khan.
Harris will be expected to maintain her signature practical and approachable look that doesn’t call attention to itself, Chrisman Campbell said. “I think people are anticipating more of the same at the inauguration,” she said. “I’d be delighted if she surprised us with a dress or a really fashion-forward coat, but I don’t expect that, and I definitely wouldn’t want her clothes to distract from the significance and solemnity of the moment.”
Though Harris’ role may allow her to be less adventurous than Dr. Biden and other leaders in attendance, Spinelli asserts that the vice president-elect will put forth a classic look on Inauguration Day. “And there’s a lot of fantastic classic around these days like Ralph Lauren or Carolina Herrera,” she said. “She’s not the frilly type, which I love about her, so we will see a look that will be all about impeccable tailoring and sophisticated color.”
One thing that is guaranteed is where the clothes are produced. One of the longstanding unwritten rules for inaugural clothes, is that they must be American-made, Chrisman Campbell said.
George Washington went to great lengths—Connecticut—to find an American wool mill that could produce cloth for his inauguration suit, she said. First Lady Caroline Harrison commissioned a gown using silk designed by an Indiana artist and woven in New York.
“This isn’t just an expression of patriotism, but a powerful advertisement for American designers and manufacturers,” Chrisman Campbell said.
Inauguration Day 2021 has the potential to rekindle interest and excitement in U.S. fashion. The American designers that distanced themselves from the Trump administration will be back anticipating a call from the East Wing that same way they were during the Obama-Biden administration, Spinelli said. And like that era, the incoming administration understands that fashion supports people’s livelihoods.
“The message is: American fashion is a huge industry; it employs a lot of people and that will never be discounted or overlooked,” Spinelli said. “It’s an industry of inclusivity and diversity…I think this is an important moment that we have [an administration] in the White House that is going to really champion this. The moment for American fashion has returned in a very positive way.”