The visual impression left by an inauguration ceremony is usually defined by its sheer scale: hundreds of thousands of people swarming the National Mall, bombastic military parades, a glitzy lineup of pop star performers. But as Joe Biden was sworn in as president in the middle of a pandemic—two weeks after a domestic terrorist siege on the same building that served as a backdrop to the day’s proceedings—the spectacle was understandably more muted.
So where did the audience look for moments of visual interest? With the usual circus of Inauguration Day stripped back to its barest essentials, it was fashion that ended up under the microscope, sparking some of the most animated conversations on social media.
It makes a strange kind of sense. Over the past year, the events that would usually serve up eye-popping red carpet moments to entertain the most avid fashion obsessives—and also draw in more fair-weather followers—have been in short supply. Yes, it’s very low down the list of urgent priorities for an administration urgently faced with tackling a recession, systemic racism, social inequity, and mass unemployment, but a carefully considered sartorial choice can still offer a glimmer of something uplifting.
On Inauguration Day there was, most notably, a return to the brand of “fashion diplomacy” that became Michelle Obama’s calling card; instead of allying herself with a single designer, as with the first ladies of decades past, Obama cannily moved between brands that best represented either her objectives for each event, or the U.S. at large while traveling internationally. For the Bidens’ first public outing as the first couple, this approach fell along more traditional lines: President Joe Biden wore a gray wool overcoat over a meticulously-cut, single-breasted navy blue Ralph Lauren suit, marking a clean break from the comically sloppy tailoring of Trump’s suits before him.
Dr. Jill Biden, meanwhile, wore a dress and coat in a sparkly cerulean tweed designed by Alexandra O’Neill of the New York label Markarian, before switching into a double-breasted coat by Gabriela Hearst for evening that was embroidered with the federal flowers of every U.S. state and territory. The latter felt like a particularly intentional choice, and not just for the piece’s inclusive symbolism: Hearst has long made sustainability a central priority for her brand, and with her recent appointment as creative director of Chloé, is about to become one of America’s most prominent exports on the global fashion stage.