There were a number of concerns about what might happen at the 59th presidential inauguration, but what Joe Biden would wear was never one of them.
With reassuring predictability, he was sworn in as the 46th US president wearing a navy blue, single-breasted suit by that most wholesomely all-American of designers, Ralph Lauren.
In contrast to his predecessor’s erratic approach to proportions, it fitted him perfectly. His sky blue tie was of a normal length. The message: normal service is restored to the White House.
The optics of this inauguration were serene, respectful and quietly joyous. Biden and his vice-president, Kamala Harris, the rock stars of the hour, presented as humble public servants, not as celebrities.
They dressed to reassure that their administration would serve all of America, instead of revolving around the attention-seeking theatrics of individual politicians. “Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of the cause of democracy,” the president said.
A capital city in semi-lockdown, in a country where Covid-19 has claimed 400,000 lives, is no place for a catwalk show. American designers who were asked to submit inauguration day sketches and suggestions for Harris and the first lady, Jill Biden, were told that neither woman wished to convey a “fashion” message.
Instead, both chose to promote independent, purpose-driven American brands. The vice-president chose a purple coat and dress ensemble by two black American fashion designers, Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson, for her big moment.
Rogers, who is from Louisiana and based in Brooklyn, is just 27. He was named the American Emerging Designer of the Year at last year’s CFDA fashion awards.
He declared his team “honoured and humbled to have played a small part in this historic moment”. Hudson, who is based in Los Angeles, also designed Michelle Obama’s claret suit for the occasion.
While both the president and the first-ever “second gentleman”, Doug Emhoff, wore Ralph Lauren, the women in the spotlight chose instead to promote small labels.
Jill Biden wore an ocean-blue tweed coat and matching dress designed by Alexandra O’Neill, whose Markarian brand, established in 2017, makes clothes to order to minimise wastage, with production taking place in New York City.
O’Neill told Womenswear Daily that her six-strong team had been “all hands on deck” since December to create the pearl- and crystal-embellished two-piece look. It was not until Jill Biden appeared in front of the cameras on the morning of the ceremony that she knew her design had made the final cut.
Harris also wore her signature pearls, an accessory with a classic heritage in the iconography of Washington power dressing. They have been favoured by first ladies Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama, but have personal significance for Harris as a symbol of solidarity with Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black Greek-letter sorority, whose members are each given a badge decorated with pearls upon initiation.
The stand-out colour of the day was not Democratic blue, but purple. The theme of the inauguration was “America United”, and purple – which represents common ground between red and blue on the colour wheel – was a visual flag for the message of unity, which featured repeatedly in Biden’s speech.
The vice-president’s choice of a purple two-piece, with tonal blueberry leather gloves, was echoed in Hillary Clinton’s vibrant purple outfit. Laura Bush’s decision to join Jill Biden and Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, in wearing blue could be seen as another nod to bipartisan symbolism.
It was left to the performers to bring the glamour, which they did in some style. The joy and relief felt by many of the audience watching the ceremony around the world found expression in the sunshine yellow jacket, scarlet silk Prada headband and diamante-studded mask worn by the young poet Amanda Gorman.
Lady Gaga wore a red silk ballgown skirt of fairytale proportions, and a gilded peace dove on her fitted navy jacket. Lady Gaga’s look was custom-made by the avant-garde Paris fashion house Schiaparelli, currently designed by an American, Daniel Roseberry.
Roseberry called the ensemble “a love letter to the country I miss so dearly”. Jennifer Lopez wore diamond-white Chanel, while Garth Brooks rocked blue jeans and a stetson. The internet also enjoyed Bernie Sanders’ parka and knitted mittens, which was dubbed “Vermont dadcore”.
Sanders explained his clothing choices to CBS News. “You know, in Vermont, we know something about the cold,” he said. “We’re not so concerned about good fashion. We want to keep warm.”
The morning departure of the Trumps stood in stark contrast. None of his family wore masks for their appearance. (The inauguration was conscientiously masked up.) Melania Trump looked, as ever, like an ice-sculpture of a first lady – one so frosty that she has not melted, even in four years.
Her clothes were all-black, staggeringly expensive, and pointedly non-American. Her jacket was by Chanel, her dress Dolce & Gabbana, her shoes Christian Louboutin. The crocodile Hermes Birkin that she carried has a price tag of about £30,000.
When the couple arrived in Florida, Melania had changed into a more relaxed ensemble – a colourful Gucci kaftan.
For the Covid memorial on inauguration eve, Harris wore a camel coat by Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, a black designer who last year transformed his New York studio into a donation centre and led fundraising for minority and female-owned small businesses hit by the pandemic.
At that event, Jill Biden wore a mulberry coat, amethyst gloves and matching mask by the independent New York designer Jonathan Cohen. Cohen is a pioneer of upcycling, and the mask, and the lining of the coat, were made from past seasons’ fabric remnants.