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Statement of Intent: The Fashion of the 2021 Inauguration

Caitlin Kilpatrick delves into the aesthetics of politics with this analysis of inauguration day outfits.


Image(s): Getty Images

Fashion is a mirror for society and struggle, it echoes culture. It also demonstrates emotions that cannot be spoken into collections that are then photographed and digested by the masses. The clothes that were worn at January’s inauguration mirrored the enriched, multicultural vision of how Americans dress and more importantly, live, today.

The question of whether fashion is political in 2021 seems redundant. It is well understood that fashion plays a large part in the way we express our beliefs. Traditionally, the fashion of politicians has conveyed subtle codes. The conservative and streamlined pantsuit has become synonymous with powerful women. Vogue even coined the term ‘fashion diplomacy’ to describe the way Michelle Obama expertly used her style to convey support for young black designers and sustainability. It can also cause controversy – think the backlash Melania Trump’s infamous Zara trench with ‘I really don’t care do u?’ imprinted on its back caused in October 2018. Just this week New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has come under fire for defending parliament rules requiring all male MP’s wear a tie.

It could come off a little Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada telling Anne Hathaway her sweater represents millions of dollars and countless jobs. Nevertheless, there are proven cognitive and cultural reasons behind our outfit choices. Shakaila Forbes-Bell, a pioneer in the field of fashion psychology, studies the use of colour and fabric to evoke emotion. She states that bright colours, like those worn by inauguration attendees, conjure comfort, warmth and understanding. “Colour can be utilised as an implicit affective cue to elicit certain emotions and the bold colour choices of Vice President Kamala Harris and First Lady Jill Biden have done just that'', Forbes-Bell told Harper's Bazaar. So what exactly did the new administration outfits tell us?

1. The face of American design is changing.

Perhaps the simplest way of making a statement with your clothes is through the designers you choose to wear. It is a long-held custom that inauguration attendees wear American designers. It is also almost always the case for the incoming president to be wearing Ralph Lauren. Joe Biden followed suit conveying a sense of stability, tradition and normality.

The one united message coming from the female attendees is the championing of young POC designers. On the day preceding the inauguration Kamala Harris platformed New York-based designer Kerby Jean-Raymond’s brand Pyer Moss. Harris wore a camel full-length coat with an asymmetric cut-out in the back to a memorial honouring the Americans lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Haitian-American Jean-Raymond has proven himself in his few short seasons to reinvent asymmetric tailoring. He takes a traditional suiting foundation and brings with it a modern eye – much like Harris herself. The label themselves state on their website that they intend on “building a narrative that speaks about heritage and activism”.

On inauguration day the Vice President wore custom Christopher John Rogers. American born Rogers, who has been using his studio to make PPE during the pandemic, has become a favourite of Michelle Obama, Cardi B and Beyonce. Born in Louisiana, he has made it very clear that his independently funded brand will champion people of colour both in and through his work. The label does not shy away from bold silhouettes but swerves the trends, favouring monochromatic and neon colours, and drawing inspiration from the power suit of the 1980s. Rogers is redefining not only what we think of as sophistication but whom we define as sophisticated women, making him the perfect choice to dress the first female Vice President.

2. Women will be advocated in this administration.

A consistently strong theme at the inauguration was the use of purple. The industrious attention paid to these women and their outfits suggests that Hilary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama all showing up in similar hues was not an accident. Purple has deep cultural and sentimental significance in communities across America. As Alice Walker famously wrote: “it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it” In her novel The Colour Purple, the colour represents dignity and divine feminine strength. Historically, purple has also been associated with the suffragette movement and nobility; primarily associated in politics with Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm was the first black Congresswoman and subsequently became the first black woman to run for president. She specifically chose her campaign colours as purple and yellow to signify integrity and change. Her slogan? "Unbought and Unbossed".

When Michelle Obama walked into the inauguration it was as if she did so in slow motion. Wearing a Sergio Hudson burgundy pantsuit, she displayed every classic style aspect that led her to become the queen of Fashion Diplomacy – it was perfectly tailored, monochromatic and gave voice to a young American designer.

Unlike their male counterparts, women in politics receive a higher level of critique for their outward appearance. Using their clothing to highlight moments of female empowerment in politics is in itself a fierce statement.

3. A Message of Unity.

Lastly, the emphasis on purple spoke to the message of unity articulated at the inauguration. During the ceremony Markarian designer Johnathan Cohen shared the message “this moment is about unity. Not Red vs Blue, but all of us coming together as a nation” on his Instagram story. It recalled the sense of bipartisanship at Hilary Clinton’s 2016 concession speech at which she wore the iconic purple lapelled Ralph Lauren suit. In her memoir 'What happened', she explains the blue of the democratic party mixed with the red of the republicans felt like the appropriate diplomatic choice.

It is clear the fashion on display at the inauguration championed education, black-owned businesses and unity. Much like the change brought it with the new administration, it is hard not to be hopeful with the current state of American fashion. It is a captivating, diverse thread beginning to weave its way into the fabric of our lives.


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