Inauguration Fashion: What Did It All Mean?


They built back better. From the moment that President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris arrived at the reflecting pool beside the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday night to the final note of the virtual concert that capped the inaugural rites and celebrations, it was clear that they, and those around them, were going to use every tool at their disposal to underscore their message of fresh starts and racial justice, help and healing. They would use every celebrity performer, every ritual and, yes, every dress and coat and suit that could set off a search, spark a trend or capture an imagination.

Even though in the run-up to the transition of power, the message from both the presidential and vice-presidential camps was that they did not want to focus on clothes (even though the brands involved had been sworn to secrecy), it was impossible to ignore how the new administration used what they wore to tell a story in a moment when the eyes of the world were on them.

It was writ in the range of designers represented, in the rainbow of colors that could be seen through any screen, in the layers of not just garments (hey, it was chilly), but meaning. And in the way the choices worked together to create a mosaic that wasn’t really about fashion at all, but rather about values and signifying intent.

The fashion was just the conduit.

Mr. Biden made his Inauguration Day entrance in a Ralph Lauren suit, coat and mask — in, that is to say, a wardrobe by a Bronx-born designer who built his reputation on channeling the mythology of the American dream. Who, indeed, embodied it himself; who has dressed the United States Olympic team, helped restore The Star-Spangled Banner and worked with administrations both Democratic and Republican over the years. Who represents bipartisan tradition and heritage and industry.

Dr. Jill Biden wore purple to the Covid memorial service — a purple coat and dress and mask from Jonathan Cohen, a next generation independent designer with a focus on sustainability, another Biden priority. And on Wednesday, it was also worn by Mrs. Clinton (her grape pantsuit was another Ralph Lauren) as well as Michelle Obama, whose wide plum trousers belted with a gold buckle, coordinated turtleneck and sweeping greatcoat, all also by Sergio Hudson, called to mind a sort of soignée superhero.

This was more than a restoration of norms, after Melania Trump had effectively trampled on the classic support-American-business-by-wearing-American practice of first ladies past. (Mrs. Trump even left the White House in a symphony of European luxury labels: Chanel jacket, Dolce & Gabbana dress, Hermès bag.) It was an acknowledgment that when it comes to fashion and politics, it’s not just about the first lady or even the first spouse, but everyone in the public eye. It’s not just about made in America, but morality in America. They saw tradition, and raised it one.

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