Arabella Byrne

The dos and don’ts of the inauguration outfit

The dos and don'ts of the inauguration outfit
Will Joe Biden wear his signature aviators? Image: Getty
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Given recent events on the inauguration scaffolding, Jill Biden may do well to wear a bullet-proof vest to watch her husband become the 46th President of the United States and be done with it. But Inauguration Day calls for some serious sartorial politicking and it seems unlikely Dr B will want to miss out. Long before Michelle sashayed her way to the 2013 ceremony in that Thom Browne coat, Thomas Carlyle spoke of the power of clothes in his 1834 Sartor Resartus: “Society is founded upon cloth” he said simply, and most women in the world would agree with him. Yet what the First Lady wears as she stands shivering next to the President in the DC winter is so much more than just cloth, it is the boundary between the First Lady and the social world, a medium for us to visualise the structures of power as it changes (gloved) hands.

Inaugural fashion has long held the attention of the crowd for its sheer performativity; rarely are clothes asked to work so hard. In 2017, Melania kept it classic with her cashmere powder - or should that be ice? - blue Ralph Lauren dress and jacket, accessorized with matching heels and gloves. The messaging was as monochromatic as the outfit: American designer, America First, with a pointed nod to Jackie’s 1961 ensemble and all its echoes of prelapsarian femininity. In an act of fashion bi-partisanship Ralph Lauren also dressed Hillary - the other woman on the podium that day - in a signature white “pant-suit” that recalled her classic campaign ensembles that spawned a fan-base for their androgynous rendition of trouser-wearing power women hoping to reach the top spot. To Hillary’s almost inevitable chagrin, the other women dressed in white were the Trump daughters, Ivanka and Tiffany. As a colour, white strikes many notes; for female politicians, it should be considered a uniform requirement, redolent as it is of the Suffragettes. In Hillary’s case, it is also a colour of mourning, in China at least. 

Barack and Michelle Obama attend one of the many inauguration balls (Getty)

The French philosopher Baudrillard described fashion as “immoral”, as napalm to semiotic systems attempting to impose order, its signifiers weaving themselves in and out of the personal and the political fabric ambiguously and dangerously. Perhaps it is in this context that we should discuss the other Mrs O, Michelle, whose inaugural fashion choices continue to be held as the last word in political messaging. Choosing edgy young designers like Thom Browne, Jason Wu and Thakoon, Michelle put colour back into political fashion and ripped up the sartorial First Lady rule book, making us believe we could all be just like her if we wore a J. Crew sparkly cardigan. Only clothes could produce such delusion the world over.

But there were First Ladies before Michelle and we must spare a thought for them and their inaugural catwalks. Both Bush ladies, Barbara and Laura, brought some Texas Rhinestone sparkle to their enormous inaugural ball gowns, presumably chosen to repel any Democrats who happened to be dancing within range. And the Bush Grandes Dames certainly knew the score when it came to what they wore on the big day, encoding fashion in the service of their politics just as uniforms do, never letting us believe for one second that we could be anything like them. Nancy Reagan certainly got the memo for her 1985 appearance next to Ron, wearing a red suit accented with gold buttons, sublimating Reaganite corporate triumphalism with the shoulder pads and massive hair. Here was fashion created for the Office of the First Lady, a vestiary performance that screamed power rather than accessibility.

George and Laura Bush at the former president's second inauguration (Getty)

Nobody, nobody, gives two hoots what the men wear at the inauguration but perhaps this year will prove to be different. Will Biden wear the aviators, cementing his brand image as the President Fonz, King of Schmaltz, the kind of guy your “Mom” would like to take you to the Prom? I really hope so. Now that the Trumps have sulked off and announced they won’t be coming, will anyone in the inner circle on the podium wear a MAGA hat? Dick Cheney reputedly wore a stetson to observe the 2017 proceedings, paving the way for the gents to accent their own inaugural outfits with not-so-discreet political messages. I, for one, am miffed not to see Melania and Jill engage in sartorial combat on the big day but I must content myself with anticipation over Kamala’s ensemble which I imagine to be some riot of white, tailored androgyny possibly accessorized with rainbow feathers and converse trainers. The late, great Baudrillard said that “all societies end up wearing masks” and perhaps in 2021 this is the only certainty we can expect on January 20th.