Here’s Why We *Should* Be Talking About What the Women of the New Administration Are Wearing

When our country’s first-ever Black and South Asian woman was sworn in as Vice President on January 20, she proudly threw her shoulders back, raised her chin and accepted the oath of office wearing a vibrant purple coat with a dress to match. And here’s the thing: Every bit about that is so worthy of discussion, including her clothing.

kamala harris inauguration outfit
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After all, much has been made of the fact that when we talk too much about what a powerful woman wears, it can undermine her worth and come across as sexist. Take the backlash over the recent Vogue cover, which featured a very casual Harris in her beloved sneakers—instead of a polished, professional power suit to echo her confident new role. Or the #AskHerMore movement, which took off during the 2015 Oscars when Reese Witherspoon and others pressured reporters to ask questions beyond those about the dresses they were wearing.

Clearly, it’s problematic when we reduce women to their appearance. But perhaps, posits New York Times fashion director Vanessa Friedman in a story titled “Why We Cover What Politicians Wear,” this is oversimplifying it. “Of course substance comes before style,” Friedman says. “But substance doesn’t exist entirely independent of style. And to consider clothing choices a part of politics would be sexist only if such consideration existed absent the policy proposals of female politicians, or if the clothes of male politicians were never given the same treatment. Neither is the case.” Just think about how much was said about Donald Trump’s tie choices or even his hair color.

Plus, as it turns out, Harris is very much in control of her own sartorial narrative, and at the inauguration, was actually using her outfit not only to make a statement but to share some visibility with her fellow Black Americans. That gorgeous coat-and-dress combo? It was custom-made by Christopher John Rogers, a Black, queer designer whose small business is based in New York. (When we say small, we mean it; up until last year he was operating out of his own apartment.) Whereas other politicians or political spouses have worn big-name European designers (Think: Melania in a $51K Dolce & Gabbana jacket), Harris seemed to be saying that her fashion would openly champion inclusivity and local economies.

This squares with the First Lady’s approach to fashion as well. For instance, during the evening portion of the inauguration, Dr. Biden wore a custom-made two-piece suit courtesy of Uruguayan-born, New York-based designer Gabriela Hearst, embroidered with the official federal flowers of every U.S. state and territory. And on her first official event at the White House, she wore a fuchsia fluted frock by Brandon Maxwell, an independent designer who hails from Texas (he also made Dr. Biden a color-coordinated face mask, natch).

“WE are here to support emerging and small US-based brands,” Harris and Biden seem to be saying. And the goal is both to bring in sales for these brands, and to write those designers into the history books, giving hope to all young kids who dream of one day dressing the first female president.

This sentiment was reiterated by Prabal Gurung, yet another US-based BIPOC designer worn by Harris in the days following the inauguration. As he said on Instagram: “My story is one that could only be possible in America: an immigrant who was born in Singapore and raised in Nepal and India coming here—a land of endless possibilities—to pursue their wildest ambitions. I see @Kamalaharris in all her strength and grace, the child of an immigrant like myself, and I am reminded of the potential of this country. The power to make dreams come true not just for a select few, but for everyone.”

But let’s get back to Harris’ standout purple coat and dress for a moment, which also had symbolism beyond its designer. As many have noted, it was a nod to Shirley Chisholm, who wore a great deal of purple during her 1972 presidential campaign, which marked the very first time a woman ran as the Democratic presidential nominee. And while Chisholm might not have won, she’s still celebrated as the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968. Plus, this shade has long been linked to the suffragette movement; “Purple is the color of loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause,” the National Woman’s Party said in a newsletter in 1913.

Suffice to say, the women of the Biden administration aren’t just plucking dresses off of a rack and wearing them because they “look good” or “feel right.” Both Harris and Dr. Biden—and their teams—are putting thought, care and plenty of planning into the outfits they’re stepping out in. It’s proof that fashion can be powerful and that it can tell a story—and if that’s not empowering, I don’t what is.

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Fashion Editor

From 2019-2021 Dena Silver held the role of Fashion Editor covering product recommendations, trends, and what you should be shopping this season.