In a year like the one we’ve already had—and we’re only 20 days in—it could seem frivolous to care about what Vice President Kamala Harris and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden chose to wear to the 2021 Presidential inauguration, given how unlike the event was from previous years thanks to both COVID and the memory of rioters violently storming the Capitol two weeks ago fresh in our minds.
But make no mistake: there’s a certain comfort to be taken in the fact that we’re allowed to be excited again about what powerful, empathetic, glass-shattering women are wearing and the deliberate, values-oriented messages they’ve already chosen to send through fashion.
In her 2018 memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama wrote that she learned to “turn fashion into [a] tool.” It’s a tack that both Harris and Biden seem to understand thanks to the former First Lady. “The influence of Michelle Obama is evident in both Dr. Biden’s and Vice President Harris’ choice of independent designers,” Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology, told Glamour.
Dr. Biden’s ocean-blue tweed coat, dress, and silk mask from American designer Alexandra O’Neill’s Markarian label was in clear support of a woman-led, emerging brand. Per the company’s website, the label “has a strong belief in supporting the fine craftsmanship that the New York Garment Center offers.” Dr. Biden’s outfit was made in New York City and finished by hand in Markarian’s New York City studio. According to a press release, “The color blue was chosen for the pieces to signify trust, confidence, and stability.”
Harris’s outfit, a purple coat and dress by New York City-based Christopher John Rogers and pearls by Wilfredo Rosado, likewise sent a strong message. Rogers, from Louisiana, is a queer Black designer and purple is notable for being a blend of blue and red, tying to the “America United” theme of the inauguration. Rosado was born in New Jersey to Puerto Rican parents. By all accounts, Harris’ outfit was a take on her signature power suit but dialed up several notches because that’s what making history calls for.
“To be Vice President is very different than being First Lady,” says Dr. Steele. “So Harris needed to focus more on professionalism and less about seeming like America’s official feminine ideal. She does this usually by wearing dark pantsuits but today called for a greater degree of pageantry.”
It’s already clear a marked shift is afoot from four years ago when people criticized legacy fashion house Ralph Lauren for dressing Melania Trump for the inauguration of Donald Trump, and designers from Zac Posen to Marc Jacobs vowed to not dress her while she was First Lady. The American fashion industry appears fully ready to embrace the women of the White House in a way they haven’t since the Obama years—a win for First Lady Biden, Vice President Harris, and their families but also for the economy.
“The visibility and support…is good for each brand [Biden and Harris wear] but also is a boost for the American fashion industry overall, which contributes $383 billion to the US economy,” says Steven Kolb, the CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Fashion is an industry that’s particularly felt the financial strain brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, so it’s no wonder excitement has been palpable. Just don’t expect these two women to be fashion figures in the vein of global trendsetters like Michelle Obama and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Susan Kelley, the creator of fashion blog “What Kamala Wore” tells Glamour to expect a “quiet kind of influence. Speaking of Harris specifically, Kelley says: “She is not into having her fashion talked about, but she is sensitive to the impact she can have with what she wears and this [inauguration] is a perfect example of her taking the opportunity to champion Black designers.”
Other Harris and Biden recent fashion moments have similarly seized the opportunity to quietly communicate their value with fashion. There was the white Carolina Herrera suit and pussy bow blouse — a nod to the suffragist movement — that Harris wore to deliver her victory speech in November.
The night before the inauguration, Biden attended a Covid-19 memorial wearing a purple coat and matching shift dress from New York-based designer Jonathan Cohen’s upcoming Fall 2021 collection. The outfit was seeped in symbolism, as the pieces are named the “Unity” coat and dress. Cohen is a rising American designer, but his parents are of Mexican descent—perhaps a nod to the different policies the Biden administration has on immigration as opposed to that of Donald Trump. Then there’s that use of the color purple again.
Harris meanwhile wore a coat by Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, a Black designer who has championed small business and worked tirelessly to provide PPE during the pandemic.
And while no one should expect a run on purple coats in the coming days, Biden and Harris are starting trends in their own way, not so much because women want to dress like them but because women want to be like them. Per Kolb, this is a “historic election of the first woman, Black woman and woman of South Asian descent as Vice President and a First Lady in Dr. Biden who as a teacher will continue in the classroom — so there is a lot to be excited about in what they wear.”
A few examples: Harris turned Converse sneakers into an “it” item on the campaign trail, a symbol for a new kind of female power. Biden’s Stuart Weitzman The 5050 Vote boots also became popular after she was spotted campaigning in them.
Harris’ signature pearls — a reference to her membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha, a Black sorority founded in 1908 — have become a rallying cry for a certain group of women. A Facebook group “Wear Pearls On Jan. 20, 2021” now boasts over 450,000 members and encouraged women to wear their pearls for the inauguration. Women across the internet happily obliged.
“Women want to buy the face masks that she’s [Harris] worn, or they want to know if there is a less expensive version of the Altuzarra suit she has worn,” says Kelley. “I think it’s less about the fashion and more about women having tremendous respect for her.”