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Decoding the fashion at Biden’s inauguration

Bernie’s mittens. Harris’s purple coat. And a whole lot of Ralph Lauren.

Decoding the fashion at Biden’s inauguration
Vice President Kamala Harris [Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images]
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Today, as Kamala Harris was inaugurated as the country’s first female, Black, and South Asian Vice President, she used her global platform to highlight emerging Black designers.

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Fashion may seem like a frivolous concern at this critical juncture in American history, but clothes have important symbolic power, a fact not lost those who attended today’s inauguration. Many attendees used their fashion choices to project the values of the new administration, which stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration.

First Lady Jill Biden [Photo: Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images]
Harris picked outfits that reflected diversity and her support of the Black community, an important signal in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. With the eyes of the world upon her, she wore a purple coat by Christopher John Rogers of Baton Rouge, along with a dress of the same color by Sergio Hudson of South Carolina.

Rogers launched his brand in 2016 and won the prestigious Vogue Fashion Fund Award three years later. He is known for his use of simple silhouettes and striking colors. Hudson debuted his eponymous label in 2014, which is characterized by figure-hugging silhouettes and beautifully draped fabrics.

Last night, as Harris attended a memorial for those who have died from COVID-19, she wore a camel coat with an asymmetrical drape on the back, designed by New York-based Kerby Jean-Raymond, who was quick to turn his office into a PPE donation center at the beginning of the pandemic and has spoken out about how frequently Black designers are marginalized by the fashion industry.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama [Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images]

Who wore what

The other members of the First and Second families wore American designers. Both President Biden and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff wore classic Ralph Lauren suits. First Lady Jill Biden wore an ocean blue wool, tweed and velvet coat, along with a matching dress from Makarian, a four-year-old label from American designer Alexandra O’Neill. Notably many of the women at the inauguration—including Kamala Harris, Jill Biden, and Michelle Obama—were dressed from head to toe in the same color, possibly to symbolize community and unity.

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Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman [Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images]
In the crowd, a few other attendees stood out. While his colleagues wore prim wool coats, Senator Bernie Sanders showed up in a practical Burton puffer jacket, along with oversized patterned mittens made by a school teacher in Vermont from recycled plastic wool repurposed from old sweaters. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga, who sang the national anthem, wore a bright red ballgown skirt along with a fitted blue sweater with an enormous pin on it that looked exactly like the Mockingjay symbol from the Hunger Games. The look was designed by American designer Daniel Roseberry from Schiaparelli, and the pin was supposed to be a dove, to symbolize peace. Amanda Gorman, the 23-year-old Poet Laureate, wore a striking Prada ensemble consisting of a yellow coat, red headband, and bedazzled face mask. She wore a ring featuring a caged bird to honor Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 

Senator Bernie Sanders [Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images]

Looking ahead

In some ways, Harris takes a page from Michelle Obama’s sartorial playbook. The former First Lady recognized that her outfits would be closely studied, so she chose to direct observers’ attention to emerging Black designers like Maki Oh and Duro Olowu, along with other designers of color, including Thakoon and Prabal Gurung. At today’s inauguration, Obama also chose to wear an outfit by Hudson: A striking eggplant-colored pantsuit with a gold belt, and a matching coat.

Related: The outrageous, deeply sexist history of the pantsuit

But it’s important to note that Harris is different from Obama, in that she is in a governing role. And the fashion choices of female political leaders are often scrutinized, however unfairly. From the time the first woman was elected to Congress in 1917 to 1993–when newly elected senator Carol Moseley Braun unknowingly showed up to work in an Armani pantsuit–there was an unspoken rule that women were not to wear suits: They were a symbol of male power. Over the past two decades, and especially in the past four years, there’s been a notable shift: Women in office and those running for office, have not only embraced the suit, but appropriated it as a symbol of female power by wearing bold, colorful colors. Hillary Clinton paved the way, with her rainbow of pantsuits; Harris often opts for pink and white pantsuits, and regularly pairs blazers with her signature Converse sneakers.

[Photo: David Tulis/AFP/Getty Images]
As the first female Vice President in the United States, Harris is blazing a trail in many ways. At the inauguration, she set the tone for her tenure with fashion choices that project her inclusive worldview. In the years to come, we’ll be watching to see how she continues to use clothes to celebrate this new era of female leadership.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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