Amid the fanfare and flair of a scaled-down Inauguration Day ceremony for incoming President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, elected officials and leaders on stage seized the opportunity to use their fashion choices to showcase their personal style and elevate designers of their choosing. And as ever, the country took note.
“You can use fashion to make a statement and I feel like both [Harris and Dr. Biden] are doing that today,” said MSNBC host Joy Reid. “It is really important and I think it is among the things people are watching and waiting for.”
As a senator and on the campaign trail, Harris embraced a signature style that resonated with fashion-forward working women, from her choice of Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers to her ever-present pearl necklaces.
Today, she — along with former First Lady Michelle Obama, and former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — all chose to wear various shades of purple. Besides being an obvious nod to the middle-ground between the evocative signature red of the Republican Party and blue of the Democratic Party, the color purple is a nod to the groundbreaking African-American Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm, who was both the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first to run for President in 1972, used the color purple throughout her campaign. Wardrobe stylist and author of “The Creatives’ Closet” Monica Barnett told Know Your Value that the color purple has historically been used to signify royalty.
“Within 25 hours, Vice President Kamala Harris showcased two black designers which is likely a nod to her support and uplifting of an underrepresented voice,” Barnett said, in reference to designers Sergio Hudson and Christopher John Rogers. Hudson’s home state of South Carolina is credited for handing Biden a crucial win in its presidential primary last February, during which Biden won overwhelming support from Black voters in the state. That win cleared the way for Biden to sweep the remaining states’ presidential nominating contests on Super Tuesday, garnering enough delegates to become the Democratic Party nominee.
Barnett called out the Christopher John Rogers coat worn by Harris as a traditional and restrained, but winning choice. Harris revisited a color she’s worn often during key moments in her own presidential run, though she made waves in the fashion community by donning a white suit and pussy-bow silk blouse on the evening she formally accepted the nomination to become the Democratic Party’s Vice Presidential nominee. White, a signature color of the suffragette movement, was the color of choice for Democratic House and Senate members during the most recent State of the Union address.
Not only did Harris wear her signature pearls, but so did other women present at the swearing-in on Wednesday. The pearls, which can be seen in photos of Harris dating back to her 1986 graduation photo from Howard University, is a mainstay accessory among the sorority sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha – the sorority Harris belongs to – which was founded more than 100 years ago at the historically Black university she attended.
“The 20 pearls represent the original founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.,” said Roslyn Brock, chair of the International Connection Committee for Alpha Kappa Alpha, calling pearls “a symbol of enduring strength, grace and poise under pressure.”
“We wear our pearls today in solidarity with Madam Vice President Kamala D. Harris to symbolize our ancestor’s journey of struggle and progress in this nation,” Brock said. "Together we share in the faith, hope and promise of the American dream.”
Incoming First Lady Dr. Jill Biden chose to wear an ocean blue wool tweed coat and dress by a young American designer named Alexandra O’Neil of Markarian.
“She's young [and] up and coming, so [Biden] is giving her a huge honor to dress the First Lady,” Reid said, calling Biden’s outfit “tasteful” and “appropriate” with its understated but glamorous shimmery details and matching gloves. “I can see this young lady is going to have a moment after this spectacular look.”
“Her custom dress is well-fitted, traditional, feminine, strong, and says she's not here to 'rock the runway',” added Barnett, who compared Biden’s “career woman” aesthetic to that of former First Lady Melania Trump, who maxed out high fashion wearing non-American designers during her tenure.
Trump, who shied away from the spotlight during her husband’s four years in the Oval Office, occasionally raised eyebrows for her fashion choices, including the pair of high heels she wore to observe relief efforts in hurricane-ravaged Texas in 2017, and the olive green coat bearing the words “I really don’t care. Do U?” that she wore to visit children in an immigration detention center a year later. During her husband’s last hours as President, Melania Trump was seen wearing an ensemble by non-American designers including Dolce and Gabbana, Christian Louboutin and Chanel along with a Birkin bag by Hermès worth more than $50,000.
“One would say there is power in ‘tradition’ and if that were the case, then Melania Trump would be a winner,” Barnett said. “However the fashion footnote that she leaves is steeped in elitism and her tone-deafness.”
Michelle Obama is no stranger to using her fashion choices to elevate and celebrate emerging and classic American designers, from Jason Wu to Ralph Lauren and Vera Wang. Her J. Crew accessories during her husband’s 2008 and 2012 inaugurations celebrated accessibility and elevated affordable working women’s fashion.
“She used fashion to send a message of inclusivity,” Reid said. “She would wear designers of color or designers from different countries that were being honored at a state dinner.” Reid noted that Obama’s 2008 inauguration look inspired the style we’ve since seen embraced by women leaders on Inauguration Day. On Wednesday, Obama sported a monochromatic long purple coat, pants, and top, along with a statement gold belt by Sergio Hudson.
“She really understands how to dress for the moment and how to look stylish, but also powerful,” Reid said. “She really is just masterful at it.”
While Michelle Obama has passed the torch to new occupants of the White House, her fashion legacy remains. “She is not center stage anymore, but her style should still stand as a lofty aspiration for first ladies and women of the White House,” Barnett said.