Biden’s and Harris’s inauguration clothes sent a powerful message

From left, Doug Emhoff, Kamala Harris, Jill Biden, and Joe Biden all dressed up for the inauguration.
From left, Doug Emhoff, Kamala Harris, Jill Biden, and Joe Biden all dressed up for the inauguration.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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For his swearing in as president of the US today, Joe Biden wore a navy suit and overcoat by Ralph Lauren. Jill Biden, who became first lady, opted for clothes from a lesser-known name. She chose a custom wool tweed coat and dress by Markarian, the small New York-based company of designer Alexandra O’Neill.

Kamala Harris wore pieces from two brands founded by Black Americans, Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson, for the historic moment when she became the first Black and South Asian woman to take the office of vice president. Doug Emhoff, her husband, wore Ralph Lauren as he became the second gentleman.

Clothing may not have been the most important subject on the minds of the Bidens and Harrises today, but their choices were weighted with symbolism and significance. For starters, all the designers were American, with Ralph Lauren a quintessential US clothing brand. Beyond that, they represent a set of ideals about America itself, and about how to use the power of one of the most visible platforms in the world.

It’s telling, for instance, that Harris and Jill Biden chose emerging designers. The visibility that comes with their positions can offer small brands a major boost when they wear their clothes. When former first lady Michelle Obama wore a dress by Jason Wu for a Barbara Walters television special in 2008, it was a “career launcher” for then 26-year-old Wu. Obama made championing new talent, especially American brands, a hallmark of her clothing choices during her years in the White House. Her successor, Melania Trump, by contrast, often favored European luxury labels such as Dolce & Gabbana, which she wore today as she departed the White House.

And it’s significant, of course, that Harris selected Black designers to dress her. As has been the case in many realms of American life, the contributions of Black designers to US fashion have frequently been forgotten or overlooked. Harris, the first Black woman to be vice president, let millions of Black Americans know with her clothes that she intends to bring their interests with her to the White House. Yesterday she also wore a coat by Pyer Moss, the company of outspoken Black designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, during a memorial for victims of Covid-19 yesterday.

Jill Biden appeared equally deliberate in choosing a label designed by a woman, given that men typically dominate top design and management roles in fashion, as in many other fields. Notably, it was made by a team based in New York’s garment district, a symbol of American manufacturing’s tenacious effort to hang on for survival.

The colors were no less intentional. The navy of Joe Biden’s suit was meant to signify a return to decorum, the team that designed it told WWD (paywall), while the blue of Jill Biden’s look suggested stability and confidence, according to a statement from Markarian. Harris’s purple coat, meanwhile, read as an ode to bipartisanship—a blending of red and blue—similar to the purple “Unity coat” by up-and-coming designer Jonathan Cohen that the new first lady wore to yesterday’s Covid-19 memorial.

Together all these choices implied a pro-American agenda that lifts up US businesses, embraces diversity, and unites the country. It’s a lot for clothing to communicate. The Bidens and Harrises now face the monumental task of making it reality.