Lady Gaga departs from a podium after singing the national anthem during the presidential inauguration ceremony, Jan. 20, 2021. (Photo/JTA-Caroline Brehman-Pool-AFP via Getty Images)
Lady Gaga departs from a podium after singing the national anthem during the presidential inauguration ceremony, Jan. 20, 2021. (Photo/JTA-Caroline Brehman-Pool-AFP via Getty Images)

The politics of fashion on display at inauguration

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At Wednesday’s presidential inauguration there was pomp, there was patriotic music, there was tradition. All together, it conveyed a message of stability and continuity after a tumultuous four years. But there was another message delivered from the rostrum: Fashion matters.

“The clothes are very interesting,” said Nicole Markoff, a Sonoma-based branding consultant and former fashion designer. “Because sartorial choices are interesting.”

Jill Biden was resplendent in head-to-toe ocean blue, while Vice President Kamala Harris stood up to be sworn in wearing royal purple. Michelle Obama strode confidently in plum and Bernie Sanders wore mittens. The clothing reflected the atmosphere — a day of muted celebration for Democrats taking office, buoyant but tempered in the aftermath of the violent mob that stormed the very building behind them on Jan. 6.

Whatever the clothes were, they were intentional, Markoff said.

“The first thing that struck, to me, is that Kamala Harris is wearing purple, because she’s doing a ‘union’ thing,” Markoff said, blending the blue of Democrats with the red of the outgoing Republican administration. Commentators have also connected the purple to women’s suffrage and Harris’ role model Shirley Chisholm, who often wore the color. The high-necked dress and matching long coat were by African American designers Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson. Harris’ pearl necklace was seen as a nod to her Howard University sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

“The purple was bold, but still, it’s purple,” said Palo Alto-based Israeli American fashion designer Ruti Zisser, who owns a chain of boutiques. “It’s reliability, stability, a calm kind of color.”

The night before, Jill Biden also wore purple, including a purple coat tied with a velvet ribbon at the waist, by New York’s Jonathan Cohen, who is known for his zero-waste designs.

There was more purple at the inauguration: Hillary Clinton came in a purple version of her usual (and now iconic) pantsuit. But she was overshadowed by Michelle Obama, who wore a dark plum suit, also by Sergio Hudson, Markoff said.

“The pantsuit Michelle Obama is wearing is a fashion suit indicating power from a feminist point of view,” Markoff said, indicating the high, nipped-in waist, in contrast to Clinton’s squarer jacket.

In fact, she said, powerful femininity seemed to be a theme. Many of the women wore midcalf coats with a feminine silhouette.

“It’s not quite tea length, but it’s conservative,” Markoff said. “But it’s also tied in at the waist.”

The coordination of outfits and strong colors also struck Zisser, who saw in them a theme of unity rather than individuals trying to stand out.

“It looks like for them it was super important to show they were all on the same side,” she said.

Zisser also said it was striking that many of the women wore clothing from fresher brands rather than superstar labels that are already big.

“They all were young designers,” Zisser said. “A young designer — that’s super, super cool.”

Markoff also said the choice of masks had a purpose, beyond the simple fact of showing support for science-based policy (although she did point out that former VP Mike Pence’s mask-wearing attendance at the event sent a political statement of its own). But each mask told a story. “The masks said so much,” Markoff said.

Harris, for example, wore plain black, which Markoff saw as a nod to the everyday American who can’t afford a fancy mask.

“Joe Biden also wore a simple mask,” she said.

Jill Biden matched her mask to her blue dress, coat and gloves. Her outfit was by American designer Alexandra O’Neill for the label Markarian.

“She looks like a queen, which is appropriate,” Markoff said.

On the other end was Bernie Sanders, who has already spawned a plethora of memes for coming to the inauguration in a familiar parka and oversize homemade mittens, clutching a manila envelope and wearing a blue mask. That fits his “man of the people image,” Markoff said.

Also, “Bernie Sanders is using the medical mask to indicate [the pandemic] is still going on,” she said.

Political statements could be identified in the fashion choices of nonpoliticians, too. Lady Gaga, who sang the national anthem, came out in a dramatic, ball gown-size ensemble with a billowing red skirt by the label Schiaparelli, designed by Daniel Roseberry, an American who lives in Paris.

Zisser’s read on the dress is that it was “a love letter to the country [Roseberry] really misses,” she said.

But what struck Markoff was the message behind Lady Gaga’s very visible accessory.

“Her brooch that’s a sculpture on her chest, it’s a dove with an olive branch,” Markoff said.

Jennifer Lopez wore all white, which Zisser said could be seen as a nod toward peace, while country star Garth Brooks showed up in jeans, along with his customary cowboy hat, another meaningful ensemble.

“That’s also saying, ‘Hey, Middle America, we got you!’” Markoff said.

Ella Emhoff, daughter of Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, got attention for her embellished Miu Miu coat worn over a dress by designer Batsheva Hay, whose eponymous label is known for blending tzniut (Jewish laws and practices regarding modesty) and high fashion.

Ella Emhoff (left) with Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris before the inauguration, Jan. 20, 2021. (Photo/Meena Harris-Instagram)
Ella Emhoff (left) with Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris before the inauguration, Jan. 20, 2021. (Photo/Meena Harris-Instagram)

As far as the men went, it was primarily dark suits and blue ties. But Markoff said even President Biden’s choice of a subdued Democratic blue that coordinated with his wife’s outfit was probably meaningful, indicating humility rather than triumphalism. It came off as honest, Zisser said.

“You’d expect him to say, ‘I’m here, I am a leader and a president!’ Zisser said. “But I think he basically chose the color of who he is.”

It may be a lot to read from a tie, but at a presidential inauguration, fashion choices have always made intentional statements, whether it’s by color or by championing lesser-known American designers. “It’s always a political stance,” Markoff said.

That holds true whether the look is dynamic or staid, forward-looking or rooted in the past, high fashion or everyday style. Clothing sends a signal.

“It definitely showed that ‘we are here, and we’re going to be super different,” Zisser said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.