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The Deeper Meaning Behind Those Stunning Inauguration Outfits

Kamala Harris and Michelle Obama, especially, communicated powerful messages through their clothing.

Did anyone else watch the U.S. presidential inauguration ceremony and remember how much they love fashion? This past year has meant no parties, no fancy dinners or cocktail bars, and very few occasions to dress up. It’s also meant fewer red-carpet events, and very little in the way of celebrity style. Remember Cardi B’s 2019 Grammys outfit? Or Rihanna in a Pope hat at the 2018 Met Gala? We miss that.

Fashion at its best is art, creativity, personal expression, and often, political messaging expressed visually. So much is communicated through clothing choices, body language and accessory choices. This is especially true at a ceremony as symbolic as the inauguration, which serves an allusive function more than a practical one.

On Wednesday, we saw lots of bright, monochromatic outfits, jewel tones, and telling touches that relayed the significance of Wednesday’s transfer of power. Here are some of the messages expressed through fashion at U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Blue for confidence and Democrats

US President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden at the inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, 2021.
US President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden at the inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, 2021.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden wore an ocean blue wool and tweed coat with a darker velvet collar and cuffs by Markarian, an emerging American label headed by Alexandra O’Neill. It’s common for first ladies to wear newer or lesser-known designers, knowing their platform will bring more attention to those brands.

Her matching blue mask was by the same label.

“The colour blue was chosen for the pieces to signify trust, confidence, and stability,” Markarian said in a statement. “The look was carefully crafted by a small team in the heart of New York City’s Garment Center and hand finished by O’Neill in her West Village studio.”

Blue, of course, is also the colour of the Democratic party.

Purple for unity and suffragettes

Vice-president Kamala Harris opted to wear a long coat in a rich purple, with a near-identical purple underneath.

Vice President Kamala Harris arrives at the inauguration with her husband Doug Emhoff.
Vice President Kamala Harris arrives at the inauguration with her husband Doug Emhoff.
Kamala Harris is sworn as U.S. Vice President.
Kamala Harris is sworn as U.S. Vice President.

Purple is the the colour between red and blue, a call for unity between the country’s two parties. Much of Biden’s inaugural speech was about attempting to bridge the vast divide that exists in the country, so it’s fitting that his vice-president would choose a colour that embodies that same idea.

It’s also a notable choice for the first-ever female vice-president, and the first person of colour to hold that role. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president, wore purple when she announced her intention to run. She may have chosen purple because of its association with the suffragettes, who fought for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century. Purple was one of the colours favoured by the movement.

Harris’ coat was by Christopher John Rogers, a young Black designer. He’s known for his use of bold, bright colours, something he picked up from his upbringing in the Southern Baptist church.

He’s defended that aesthetic from the kind of criticism that’s often thrown at women who wear clothing that isn’t seen as “serious” or “professional” enough.

“I don’t think that wearing hot pink and ruffles or bright yellow, or a really intense blue in shapes that take up space make you any less intelligent,” Rogers told NPR earlier this year. “I don’t think that the way that you dress should make you sacrifice your personality, or your point of view, or necessarily say anything about your intelligence.”

Former US President Bill Clinton arrives with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Former US President Bill Clinton arrives with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton wore a pantsuit and scarf in a similar shade of purple to the one Harris chose. It brings to mind a much less sombre version of the grey suit with a purple lapel that she wore in her 2016 concession speech. Note her husband’s matching tie, too. Unity is the clear message.

Hillary Clinton speaks the day after the 2016 election.
Hillary Clinton speaks the day after the 2016 election.

And the day before the inauguration, Jill Bidenwore a Jonathan Cohen wrap coat and dress in a very slightly plummier purple to the memorial for victims of COVID-19. An event of that degree of grim significance is an ideal time to demonstrate the need for unity.

Doug Emhoff, Kamala Harris, Dr. Jill Biden and Joe Biden at a memorial for victims of the coronavirus pandemic at the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday.
Doug Emhoff, Kamala Harris, Dr. Jill Biden and Joe Biden at a memorial for victims of the coronavirus pandemic at the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday.

(And, again, Biden matched her mask to outfit. Impressive!)

Michelle Obama also chose a colour that combined red and blue, but hers was more of a deep maroon than a mauveine.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
Michelle Obama's oversized belt was a popular accessory.
Michelle Obama's oversized belt was a popular accessory.

Her wide-legged suit, coat, and oversized belt were by Sergio Hudson, a young Black designer whose work she’s worn several times before. (He wished her a happy birthday on Instagram earlier this week.)

The heels Harris wore to the inauguration were also designed by Hudson.

Note the pops of colour as Michelle Obama greets Kamala Harris, with Hillary Clinton looking on.
Note the pops of colour as Michelle Obama greets Kamala Harris, with Hillary Clinton looking on.

Obama’s outfit was a slightly more vibrant shade of the colour she wore to Donald Trump’s inauguration four years ago. It’s likely she’s communicating a similar call for unity. (Although it’s worth noting that none of her facial expressions on Wednesday became memes, the way they did in 2017.)

Michelle Obama and Jill Biden at Donald Trump's inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, 2017.
Michelle Obama and Jill Biden at Donald Trump's inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, 2017.

White for women’s rights

Jennifer Lopez greets Vice-President Kamala Harris.
Jennifer Lopez greets Vice-President Kamala Harris.
Jennifer Lopez singing during the inauguration.
Jennifer Lopez singing during the inauguration.

Jennifer Lopez, who was there to perform “This Land Is Your Land” (and, memorably, add a reference to her song “Let’s Get Loud” at the end), wore an all-white outfit: white pants, white ruffle top, and white coat. When she wasn’t singing, she also had a white hat and a white mask.

Jennifer Lopez with Hillary Clinton and Lady Gaga.
Jennifer Lopez with Hillary Clinton and Lady Gaga.

The striking monochromatic look is another reference to the suffragette movement of the early 1900s. Before adopting purple, women working for voting rights wore all white. Part of the idea was that theoretically, women of all backgrounds and classes could join the movement in a visible way, simply by wearing all white. (Although, of course, the suffragette movement largely excluded women of colour.)

Many contemporary politicians have worn all white in recent years as a feminist statement. Harris wore a white suit by Caroline Herrera when she gave her victory speech in November. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a white suit when she was sworn into Congress in 2019. And in February 2020, all of the Democratic women in Congress wore white to the State of the Union to demonstrate their commitment to women and other marginalized groups.

A dove for peace (and a giant skirt for social distancing)

Lady Gaga, naturally, performed the national anthem wearing an outfit that commanded attention — and told a story.

President-elect Joe Biden greets Lady Gaga during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, January 20, 2021. 
President-elect Joe Biden greets Lady Gaga during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, January 20, 2021. 
Lady Gaga arrives to sing the National Anthem at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Lady Gaga arrives to sing the National Anthem at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Her dramatic gown, with its deep red blooming, oversized silk skirt, sleek black bodice and enormous gold dove brooch, was eye-catching but, by her standards, understated. It was designed for the French fashion house Schiaparelli, but by an American designer, Daniel Roseberry.

As Gaga pointed out on Twitter, the themes of peace and unity were overt: the golden dove on her dress was holding an olive branch. “May we all make peace with each other,” she wrote.”

The enormity of the garment also served another service, perhaps inadvertently: it made it hard for anyone to get too close to her. With so many people in close proximity, many of them unmasked, enforcing social distancing was not a bad thing.

No one can get close to that dress.
No one can get close to that dress.

Female designers to celebrate women (and earrings to honour predecessors)

Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration.
Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration.

Without a doubt, the breakout star of the ceremony was Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old Youth Poet Laureate who became the youngest poet to deliver an inaugural address. In one of the most moving parts of the day, she called herself “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,” and marvelled that she “can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.”

Gorman told Vogue that her gorgeous canary-yellow coat was by Miuccia Prada, whom she chose in part because of her feminist credentials. Prada has talked about the sometimes uneasy reconciliation of her politics with her work in the fashion industry. She’s also been outspoken about misogyny, and has infused those ideas into her work.

Like many other attendees, Gorman opted for a floor-length coat.
Like many other attendees, Gorman opted for a floor-length coat.

But, there’s another important symbolic part of Gorman’s outfit: her jewelry, which was a gift from none other than Oprah Winfrey.

Gorman was looking for a way she could pay tribute to some of the great Black female poets who came before her. Maya Angelou had spoken at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, and Elizabeth Alexander spoke at Barack Obama’s in 2009.

Maya Angelou reciting her poem 'On the Pulse of Morning' at Bill Clinton's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1993. She's wearing a Chanel coat given to her by Oprah Winfrey.
Maya Angelou reciting her poem 'On the Pulse of Morning' at Bill Clinton's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1993. She's wearing a Chanel coat given to her by Oprah Winfrey.

That’s when Winfrey, a fan of Gorman’s, decided to get involved. She had given Angelou the Chanel coat and gloves she wore nearly three decades ago, before Gorman was born. She decided to continue the tradition, by sending the young poet an aviary ring by the mother-and-daughters design trio Of Rare Origin. She also sent her a pair of yellow-gold hoop earrings with white diamonds by Nikos Koulis.

Amanda Gorman.
Amanda Gorman.

“Every single time I get a text from [Oprah] I fall on the floor,” Gorman told Vogue.

She was thrilled by the gift, she added.

“[Fashion] has so much meaning to me, and it’s my way to lean into the history that came before me and all the people supporting me.”

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