The Inauguration: Visual Messaging

The symbols, designers, and genius at the 2021 Biden-Harris Inauguration

By Presley Church

January 23, 2021

With such important public roles, it’s no secret that our politicians are under a microscope. What they wear, who they wear, and where they wear it can contain powerful messages. Let’s think back to the former First Lady Melania Trump’s $39 army green Zara coat worn at her 2018 visit to a detention center for migrant children announcing “I really don’t care, do u?” Recall former First Lady Michelle Obama’s alliance with everyday-Americans in persistent J-Crew. Dressing for each outing is intentional, but few events measure up to the importance of who and what is worn at a presidential inauguration, and why it is worn. The 2021 inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris demonstrated that the significance isn’t in each fashion look, but the people and history sewn into each seam, and the messages each color, embellishment, and silhouette hold.

Inaugural fashion has peaked the interest of Americans since the Washington Administration, however, since Helen Taft’s enthusiastic donation of her 1909 inaugural ball gown to the National Museum American History, preservation of inaugural fashion has moved beyond mere interest to tradition. Each year the first lady donates her inaugural ball gown to be archived and remembered for generations, often setting the tone for the administrations fashion tendencies, such as the case of Jackie Kennedy. 2021’s inauguration, a direct result of the unprecedented 2020, was held in the best interest of public health. Translation: there was no traditional inaugural ball, and the smiles of the incoming American leader’s were concealed by masks- one could say a fashion first. Let’s take a look at the who, the what, and the why of 2021 inaugural fashion.

Many a TikTok has been circulated imagining the group chat of the women of politics choosing their outfits for such a historic day.

One thing is for certain, whether or not there was a group chat, the unity among the women at the inauguration calls for a new era in American government and leadership.  In a socially-distant sea of suits and black coats, dots of purple, blue, yellow, and more purple stood out, marking the monochromatic power-fits of Vice President Kamala Harris, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton, Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, and other supreme attendees and performers. The monochromatic coordination speaks to the unity among the incoming leaders and their teams, contrasted with a legacy of division in the Trump Administration so glaring in Trump’s absence from the event and rift with Mike Pence. 

This unity is emboldened by the ubiquity of purple.  Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama, and Hilary Clinton donned violet, wine, and grape coordinating sets topped with jackets, gloves, and jewels. At the most basic color theory level, purple is the combination of red and blue: the colors representing the Republican and Democratic parties respectively. After years of increasing polarization and antagonization between parties, it is no accident that they should choose a color to represent the bipartisan goals that the Biden-Harris ticket ran on. The importance of purple, though, does not end there. According to the National Park Service, The National Women’s Party in 1913 described purple as “the color of loyalty, constancy to purpose, [and] unswerving steadfastness to a cause.”  Purple came to represent suffragette movements across continents, states, organizations, and time. Harris, as the first female Vice President, and the purple-clad women around her, are perhaps ushering in a new era of women’s rights and women in politics, claiming unity and historical learning as pillars of that new era.

The efficacy of each look extends beyond the cohesion amongst the aforementioned  inaugural attendees. On top of color, each designer, and their legacy, were carefully selected.

Kamala Harris

American designer Christopher John Rogers, in his 2020 Vogue interview, described the wearer of his label as “passionate, sensitive, witty, loving, and [having] an amazing sense of humour.” Last week, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund 2019 Winner, 2020 CFDA American Emerging Designer of the Year, and veteran of the politico- fashion world, added dressing the Vice President of the United States to his list of accomplishments. Harris sported a coordinating purple dress and coat. Aside from the intentional purple, Harris was purposeful in her brand selection. As a black designer known for bold color, loud volume, and impeccable tailoring, Roger’s brand ethos substantially aligns with Harris’s image as she enters office. As the first woman, the first South Asian American, and the first Black American to hold the office of Vice President, bold color and support of an exploding Black-American designer sends the message that she may just usher a new era into the whitehouse.

Jill Biden

In typical inaugural fashion, all eyes would look to the new First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. Biden opted for a bespoke tweed coat and dress set by up-and-coming New York Brand, Markarian. Don’t worry, she boarded the bipartisan purple train at the first inaugural event of the week, opting instead for serene and democratic blue for the swearing-in.  The real significance of her look, as for many of the other women, is the brand. 

Markarian was founded in 2017 by designer Alexandra O’Neill. Though a baby in the luxury fashion world, this New York City garment-district label is hurtling towards fame, dressing A-list celebrities, and now the First Lady. The Colorado-born designer is known for her luxe youthful designs and intentioned craftsmanship. Markarian’s strategy signals slow fashion. Garments are customized, and made-to-order in-house: a nod to sustainability from Dr. Biden.

Michelle Obama

A fashion-focussed discussion about a political gathering feels incomplete without this icon. The former first lady joined the purple team at the inauguration, that is, with her own twist. Obama showed off a wine-colored floor length-coat and belted pants by Sergio Hudson. The LA based designer is a strong voice for diversifying the fashion industry. After dressing both Obama and Harris last week, Hudson stated “I want to normalize African American designers being American sportswear designers,” in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily. A continued supporter of Hudson, the former first lady is playing her part in uplifting strong fashion voices and Black American creatives.  

Amanda Gorman

For many, the highlight of the day was 22-year-old Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s recitation of “The Hill We Climb.” As the youngest inaugural poet in history, it’s no wonder the youthful eyes of our nation look to her not only for her wisdom, but her steze. Holding fast to the monochrome theme, Gorman rocked a bright yellow Prada jacket. According to The Cut, yellow was per the recommendation of Dr Jill Biden herself. The fashion collaboration does not end there: Oprah gifted the poet a pair of earrings and the Maya Angelou inspired caged-bird ring. Her clothing choice calls on the strength of inspiring women of the past and present, Gorman herself demonstrating strength in the future.

Joe Biden 

President Biden too sent a message through his clothing. In a well-tailored Ralph Lauren dark-blue suit, Biden paid homage to a truly American Brand. Ralph Lauren’s label epitomizes the American dream, the famed designer calling on americana ideals. 

Bernie Sanders

Despite the glamour and intention of each and every inaugural look, it was Bernie Sanders that stole the show… and the press. The memes, tiktoks, and photoshopped scenes of Sanders drooped in his chair were endless. A true Vermonter, he kept his Burton jacket zipped and his handmade mittens on. The upcycled mittens were a gift from a school-teacher years prior. It doesn’t get  more sustainable than that. Well played, Bernie.

How we dress is a way to visually communicate our sense of self and our values. It can reinforce what we verbally and physically communicate. And that communication and messaging is amplified for our leaders and those in the spotlight. The spotlight was shining extra bright on Wednesday after nearly a year of virtual, chest-up, events and with the ushering in of the Biden Administration. At first glance, the suits and dresses may appear like traditional political garb: modest and professional. Perhaps the genius of this inaugural fashion season was the nod to tradition while opening the gates for discussion and evolution. By pairing tradition and historical motifs with modern designers and ideals for the future, these politicians showed America that they will work to return our country to normalcy,  craved after this strange year, while demonstrating that justice and the environment will not be sacrificed along the way. It is up to us to take in these unspoken messages, woven in with the fibers of their wares, and hold this new administration accountable for the hope they’ve created. 


Consider images as links to more articles and information about the inauguration. Image authors and web-platform are included and linked below each image.


Works Cited

Donaldson, Tara. “Why Amanda Gorman Represents a New Kind of Style Icon.” WWD, Women’s Wear Daily , 22 Jan. 2021, wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-features/amanda-gorman-new-kind-of-style-icon-fashion-purpose-sustainability-1234709979/

Farra, Emily. “Meet the Designer Behind Dr. Jill Biden’s Inauguration Day Look.” Vogue , 20 Jan. 2021. https://www.vogue.com/article/markarian-designer-jill-biden-inauguration-day-look.

Friedman, Vanessa, and Jennifer Steinhauer. “Purple Was a Popular Color at the Inauguration, and Bernie Sanders’ Mittens Made a Splash.” The New York Times, 20 Jan. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/01/20/us/politics/purple-inauguration.html

Gorman, Amanda. Amanda Gorman, www.theamandagorman.com/

Krentcil, Faran. “Sergio Hudson on Designing Kamala Harris’s Inauguration Dress: ‘She Shines So We Can All Shine.”.” Harper’s Bazaar, Harper’s Bazaar, 21 Jan. 2021, 9:32 PM, www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/designers/a35272173/kamala-harris-inaugural-dress-sergio-hudson/

“Markarian- About.” Markarian, markarian-nyc.com/pages/about

“Melania Trump Says ‘Don’t Care’ Jacket Was a Message.” BBC News, BBC, 14 Oct. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45853364.

Moore, Booth. “Kamala Harris’ Tuxedo and Jill Biden’s Embroidered Dress Send Messages.” WWD, Women’s Wear Daily , 20 Jan. 2021, wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-scoops/kamala-harris-tuxedo-and-jill-bidens-embroidered-dress-send-messages-on-future-of-style-1234705408/

Petrarca, Emilia. “Bask in the Brilliance of Amanda Gorman.” The Cut, The Cut, 20 Jan. 2021, www.thecut.com/2021/01/amanda-gorman-inauguration-poem-prada.html

Prasad, Ritu. “Inauguration Fashion: Purple, Pearls, and Mittens.” BBC News, BBC, 20 Jan. 2021, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55742583

“Symbols of the Women’s Suffrage Movement .” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/articles/symbols-of-the-women-s-suffrage-movement.htm

Tan, Pakkee. “Christopher John Rogers on Design, Style Icons and What the COVID-19 Crisis Has Taught Him.” Vogue , 21 Sept. 2020. https://vogue.sg/christopher-john-rogers-interview/.

“The Tradition of the Gowns.” National Museum of American History, Smithsonian, 26 Sept. 2013, americanhistory.si.edu/first-ladies/tradition-of-the-gowns


By Presley Church

January 23, 2021