Kamala Harris, Dr. Jill Biden, and the Politics of Dressing

Photo credit: Getty Images/Ingrid Frahm From Harper’s BAZAAR There is great power in fashion—when it…

Photo credit: Getty Images/Ingrid Frahm
Photo credit: Getty Images/Ingrid Frahm

From Harper’s BAZAAR

There is great power in fashion—when it is used with intent. This is perhaps most evident on those world stages when everyone is watching: a glitzy red carpet, a designer runway, a historic inauguration.

Due to the pandemic, though, we haven’t had much in the way of fashion on a big stage. Red carpets have been mostly canceled; live runway shows are staged without crowds, filmed, and consumed virtually. But last week, during the inauguration, we got a proper show: A symbolic, patriotic parade of well-tailored coats, eggplant hues (a color to symbolizes unity), monochromatic ensembles, and, most affectingly, the reemergence of the kind of thoughtful styling choices that lift up and celebrate emerging American design talent.

In her time in the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama championed young, diverse American designers, making each brand a household name with a single wear. Now, it’s clear that Vice President Kamala Harris and First Lady Jill Biden are picking up where she left off, bringing no small amount of hope to the fashion industry following an incredibly difficult year.

Photo credit: JIM WATSON - Getty Images
Photo credit: JIM WATSON – Getty Images

On the eve of the inauguration, the now vice president and president, with their spouses, attended a COVID-19 memorial service at Washington, D.C.’s National Mall to honor the more than 400,000 Americans who lost their lives due to the pandemic. The VP wore Pyer Moss for this event, designed by Kerby Jean-Raymond, a New York–based designer with Haitian roots. Though we can’t assume what she was trying to communicate with her clothing, decisions like this are not made off the cuff. After all, these are images and clothes that will be scrutinized by millions across the globe.

Harris’s sleek camel-colored coat, complete with a wave design on the back, was worn over an all-black Oscar de la Renta outfit, making for a somber but stylish look fitting for the evening’s events. Dr. Jill Biden, standing by her husband’s side, wore a violet-colored Unity wrap coat designed by Mexican-born, New York–based designer Jonathan Cohen. Keeping in mind her husband’s inaugural theme, America United, a choice like this feels pointed and deliberate.

Cut to a mere 10 hours later and Harris and Biden continued to deliver their messages, not just to the fashion community but to women and those who have been marginalized around the world. Although many of us hoped, possibly even expected, Harris would choose to wear a Black designer on Inauguration Day, seeing the VP in Christopher John Rogers, a young, Black, queer designer from Louisiana, gave those who are from marginalized pockets within the fashion industry an “I see you” nod just when we needed it most. Wearing a tailored coat and matching dress in a bold shade of purple, accessorizing with her signature pearls (these strands made by Puerto Rican designer Wilfredo Rosado) and heels by another Black designer, Sergio Hudson, Harris elevated these emerging designers to center stage. Dr. Biden made a similar move, wearing Markarian, a newish line (launched in 2017) designed by New York–based designer Alexandra O’Neill, while President Biden went with Ralph Lauren, an established American brand.

Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool – Getty Images
Photo credit: DAVID TULIS - Getty Images
Photo credit: DAVID TULIS – Getty Images

After a packed morning, both the VP and First Lady changed into more glamorous outfits for Celebrating America, a televised special with musical performances hosted by Tom Hanks. Biden opted for another dress-and-coat ensemble, this time from Uruguay-born, New York–based designer Gabriela Hearst. The white look, embroidered with flowers from every state and territory of the United States, paid homage to suffragists of the past, but more so than anything else highlighted Biden’s commitment to wearing female designers.

Harris, dressed in a black sequined cocktail dress and tuxedo, again by Sergio Hudson, addressed the crowd saying, “We not only see what has been. We see what can be. We shoot for the moon. And then we plant our flag on it.” She added, “We are bold, fearless, and ambitious. We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome. That we will rise up.” Upon reflecting on the moment, Hudson says, “We kept the silhouette very structured and tailored, because that’s who the Vice President is. But the liquid sequins give her glamour and shine, because her influence and the way she’s broken barriers is a light for so many of us. She shines so we can all shine.”

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo credit: Shutterstock

You see, at its best, fashion is a reflection of what is happening in the greater world around us. We’re living through a highly divided time, still reckoning with a social justice movement that’s calling for an end to brutality against Black and Brown citizens, demanding justice for those in the LGBTQAI community, and at the very least, looking for to a return to common decency. The clothing choices of Harris and Biden help illuminate the path the administration hopes to carve out.

Even over the course of the following days, when most of the cameras were no longer focused on the women, the duo continued to wear pieces from statement designers. For the inaugural prayer service in the State Dining Room of the White House, Harris wore Prabal Gurung, a Nepal-born, New York–based designer; while Biden wore Brandon Maxwell, a queer, Texas-born designer.

Photo credit: Alex Wong - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alex Wong – Getty Images

With these choices, both Harris and Biden are signaling a shift in the way this administration will use fashion to communicate. Gone are the crass, classless days of “I really don’t care, do U?” scrawled in all caps on the back of a parka worn on a trip to visit immigrant kids at a border detention center. Though we’re still in the (very) early days of this administration, it seems as though we are in the market for intentional wardrobe choices, those that support young talent, BIPOC-owned brands, and small businesses across the country.

In these moments, fashion is more than the dopamine rush that hits when one takes in a beautiful look. (Though, feeling an emotion other than rage is quite welcomed.) No, for those of us who have spent years covering the fashion of those in the White House, we now find solace in women who are willing to use big moments to boost awareness (and hopefully sales!) at a time when many brands in the fashion industry so desperately need it. The pandemic has been brutal for designers everywhere, but especially in America. Many have shut down, paused operations, or, like Pyer Moss, pivoted to raising money for those in need or making personal protective equipment for frontline workers.

At last. As President Joe Biden put it, “It’s a new day.”

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