First published on January 22, 2021
That this week’s inauguration was historic barely needs saying.
Trump is out, Biden is in, and with him, more women have entered the White House than ever before. Who didn’t well up seeing Kamala Harris, the first woman, first Black and first South Asian VP in American history, take the oath?
And while the ceremony itself might have been missing the crowds that were so important to Trump, the star power it brought to the stage recited the new administration’s declaration of diversity with gusto. From Gaga and JLo to the awe-inspiring first Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman – who displayed more grace in five minutes than the Trumps did in their entire tenure – one white man’s inauguration placed women of every age and ethnicity in the spotlight.
And those women? Well, they know the power of a good coat.
Discussing fashion at such times can feel frivolous, and as a host of style mags pored over the outfits, inevitably the critics shot right back in the comments, caps lock yelling about looking at the women, not the clothes. So, who is right?
I’d argue both, and neither – for the mistake, this time, lies in separating the two. This was power dressing taken to a whole new level, Politics-with-a-capital-P by way of the wardrobe department, sartorial statements worn by women who welcomed the inspection.
Is it demeaning to see sunshine in Amanda Gorman’s bright yellow Prada? Only if you aren’t listening. For what better colour choice to hammer home her message could there possibly be? “When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it,” she intoned, shining like a bold new day herself. “For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Anyone needing further evidence of the sartorial symbolism at play here needed to look no further than Gorman’s hand, adorned with a golden caged bird ring – a talisman, from Oprah herself, for the moment she would follow in Maya Angelou’s illustrious footsteps.
Women on top
When it comes to dressing for life’s biggest moments – and the stage doesn’t get much bigger than this – women are often damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Spend too much time considering your clothes and you’re lightweight, silly, vacuous. Take a more efficient approach and… well, we all know how that goes.
Take Hillary Clinton, the only woman on the platform to have made it to the top of the ticket herself. Having been mocked for her practical pantsuits throughout her own presidential campaign, are we really not meant to read into the ruffled violet two-piece, reminiscent of Prince himself, that she donned defiantly, brilliantly, on Wednesday? If a pair of trousers could speak…
Is it unfeminist to comment on Kamala Harris’s coat if she, herself, has taken the time to consider its messaging? Let’s not pretend the colour is a coincidence. That very particular shade of purple is the perfect bipartisan combination of Democratic blue and Republican red, yes, but it’s also the colour of suffrage, and the hue most associated with Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman ever to stand for the presidency. That is no accident.
Neither is the fact her look came from the 2020 CFDA American Emerging Designer of the Year, Christopher John Rogers, who is young, Black, and queer.
As he himself told NPR, “I don’t think that wearing hot pink and ruffles or bright yellow or a really intense blue in shapes that take up space makes you any less intelligent. I don’t think that the way that you dress should make you sacrifice your personality, or your point of view, or necessarily say anything about your intelligence.”
Harris, one has to assume, would agree. She looked radiant, yet serious; a woman in control. Which, of course, she now quite literally is.
The business of fashion
These women understand that their clothes will be dissected, whether they want them to be or not. And so, what better way to thrust some young, up-and-coming homegrown talent onto the world stage?
Michelle Obama understands better than most the power of her recommendation, having launched designer Jason Wu’s name single-handedly (should that be single-shoulderly?) into the fashion stratosphere via the asymmetric white gown she chose for her own husband’s inauguration ball.
This week, she followed through on her tradition of spotlighting new brands, opting for a head-to-toe plum ensemble by Sergio Hudson, a Black designer from South Carolina. Did the overall superheroine vibe come from the floor-length open coat, or Obama’s attitude? It barely matters when the combination is so striking, but after many hours poring over the pictures, I’ll happily settle for giving both shared credit.
Clearly, Obama’s small brand-promoting baton has now passed to Dr Jill Biden, who opted for a turquoise tweed coat with matching dress and mask by little-known New York label Markarian. Handmade by a small team of ateliers in Manhattan’s Garment Centre, and teamed with jewellery created in recycled platinum, the new First Lady’s statement of intent was subtle but insistent.
And so, Wednesday was a good day for liberals, yes, but also for fashion. It was a good day for the many small designers whose clothing, accessories and even masks were given a welcome publicity boost at this, a terrible time for business as well as for creativity, and for joy itself.
But whether you choose to care about the clothes or not, it was also, crucially, a very good day for women. Because the message coming from all these colourfully-clad powerhouses, sung loudly and shamelessly as a chorus, was “See us.”
These coats were made for the spotlight. But their power? Well, that’s in the wearers, not in the weave.
So long, Melania
No dissection of the inauguration’s fashions would be complete without honourable mention of dishonourable Melania, surely the most reluctant First Lady of recent times?
Having reportedly refused to write her own thank you notes to household staff (charging a junior staffer with writing in ‘her voice’ instead) and having most definitely refused to welcome her successor to the White House, Melania Trump’s walk to Marine One was funereal, albeit bereavement by way of Breakfast at Tiffanys.
While the literal price tag for her farewell ensemble – black cropped Chanel jacket, black Dolce & Gabbana dress, black crocodile Hermes Birkin bag and black Louboutin stilettos – was surely astronomical, it seemed designed to highlight not just her wealth but the price she, herself, believes she has paid for her husband’s run on power.
In case that message was too subtle however, contrast the widow-in-mourning vibe with her Florida arrival outfit, hastily changed into aboard Air Force One. For what says “holidaaaay, celebraaaate!” more than a £2,700 psychedelic 60’s print Gucci kaftan? What could say “My work here is done” more clearly than her refusal to pose for further photos in it once she was in the same state as her swim-up bar?
As fashion messaging goes, the only way she could have made her point more clearly is if she’d opted to bring back that infamous ‘I really don’t care, do u?’ jacket.
Whether the American public will miss her or not is hardly the point. Her flats, frock and FU to the photographers ensured her message was heard loud and clear. She won’t miss them – and just as she’d like it, she didn’t even have to open her mouth to say so…