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100 days of vice-presidential style

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On April 28, when President Joseph R. Biden delivers his address to the Joint Session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris at his shoulder and Jill Biden and Douglas Emhoff watching from the balcony, it will mark the first public appearance from above. level of the first and second families since the inauguration.

President Biden, of course, will be the only one to speak. This does not mean that the other three will have nothing to say.

It is precisely on these occasions of state that the creation of images takes on its full extent, that the costume becomes a key element of political theater.

They are, said Susan Kelley, founder of the What Kamala Wore website, “a branding exercise – not just for the individual but for the administration and the nation as a whole.”

Yet when it comes to the women of Brand Biden – the Vice President, one heartbeat from the most powerful office in the country, and the First Lady, one heartbeat from the most powerful man – everyone subject of the dress is apparently out of reach. , may be full of real opportunities but also anguish.

They clearly occupy different positions: Ms. Harris, an elected official who runs the country; Dr. Biden a political spouse. But each in its own way represents a new paradigm (first female vice president, first lady to continue working in the White House), and each is observed in Washington’s petri dish. In the age of the visual, that means not only words and actions, but also the outfits that matter.

It started at the inauguration, when the four protagonists rose to the occasion with grace and foresight. In a widely applauded fusion of style and substance, the new First and Second Families took advantage of their appearance in front of the nation to plant a territory that apparently supported the words they had campaigned on: empathy, inclusiveness, all to better rebuild. .

Mr. Biden and Mr. Emhoff each wore a suit by Ralph Lauren, a designer who has become synonymous with American style. More specifically, Dr. Biden wore a “Unity” coat and mask by young independent Jonathan Cohen, then a dress embroidered with the flowers of the 50 States by Gabriela Hearst, a designer focused on sustainability. Ms Harris wore clothes from three different independent black designers, including a purple dress and coat that fused blue and red.

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It seemed to herald a new era of conscious clothing and a new dawn for the American fashion industry, shaken after four years of an administration that had trampled on all political norms, including the tradition of using their clothing as an expression of patriotic duty. Not to mention the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, with its closures and bankruptcies.

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And yet, 100 days after Biden’s administration, the most conscious part of their imaging has been how they seem to be consciously downplaying the whole thing.

Emails to the Vice President’s and First Lady’s offices asking if there was a policy in place to support the American fashion industry, or if, on major state occasions, they would offer information about the choice of dress, were simply greeted with “nothing more to add.” In March, Michael LaRosa, Dr Biden’s press secretary, told WWD that “we will not comment on his clothes.” When contacted, many designers (but not all) declined. to be cited on the first lady or the vice-president.

To some extent, you can understand the reluctance. Historically, the emphasis on fashion has been used as a weapon to dismiss or demean women in positions of power. But as Nancy Pelosi showed in her Mace of the Republic pin and orange coat and Hillary Clinton in her white suffragist costume, it can be turned into an advantage: a way to highlight who they are, what they’ve accomplished. and where they values ​​lie. To draw attention to what they are doing. It’s part of the package.

And when it comes to Ms Harris and Dr Biden, there’s clearly some thinking going on – and the public watching them clearly cares. And none of these things are a bad thing.

Ms Harris, for example, adopted an unofficial, but also unmistakable, work uniform consisting of dark navy, black and gray pantsuits, most often, but not always, from Joseph Altuzarra, a young American designer. (She started wearing the tag long before the campaign and “is probably around 20,” Mr. Altuzarra said, including “a classic button, two buttons, crossed.”)

See, for example, the ocean blue Altuzarra jacket that Ms Harris wore for her official portrait, as well as the burgundy Altuzarra suit she wore to accept the vice presidential nomination and the gray Altuzarra suit that she wore as a cover for her. ‘It.

She pairs the costumes with simple cups, often in indescribably matching hues, as well as Manolo Blahnik 70mm pumps and her famous pearls, which directly trace her sorority in a historically black college.

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Its extreme consistency effectively silences comments. When someone wears the same thing day in and day out, what else is there to say at any given time? But then, when Ms. Harris departs from the script, the effect is to draw attention to her choices, making them even more meaningful. Thus, the public has buzzed about her appearance in Converse on the election campaign, the fact that she wore a white pantsuit the night she and Mr. Biden were declared the election winners, and during the ‘inauguration. (And so the universal panic on the cover of Vogue that surfaced right before the swearing-in.) It’s a master class in coaching.

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“From what I’ve seen, she has a real point of view,” said Mr. Altuzarra, who also credited the vice president with generating notable interest in her tailoring despite the fact that at over the past few months, everyone could talk. was pretty much the end of the costume. “She has developed an incredibly powerful image but also doesn’t try to erase her femininity. She achieves this balance very well. “

According to Ms. Kelley of What Kamala Wore: “I really questioned the effort when I first started: is it appropriate to write on her clothes? It’s a busy topic, and it’s clearly a secondary consideration. But people really care about people who are seen as role models. Fashion builds bridges – it’s a common thread. I get a lot of emails from young women who want to be like her, saying, “Where can I get a cheaper version?” “

For his part, Dr. Biden has appeared almost entirely among American designers since the inauguration. An incomplete roll call of names includes Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors, Brandon Maxwell, Veronica Beard and Stuart Weitzman.

Alexandra O’Neill, founder and designer of Markarian, who made the blue coat and dress Dr Biden wore when her husband was sworn in, reported that since the inauguration, the brand’s e-commerce has quintupled, its website traffic grew by 725. percent and Saks Fifth Avenue began stocking its clothes. Likewise, Mr. Cohen said after the Unity coat, “We saw mask sales increase by 625% in the first 48 hours.”

When the first lady tweeted a photo of herself wearing a scrunchie and shopping for treats on Instagram ahead of Valentine’s Day, it went viral, with watchers applauding her relatable style. A photo of her in early April disembarking from Air Force One in lacy tights, ankle boots and a leather skirt sparked an equally noisy firestorm on social media, as commentators seemed baffled by the idea of ​​someone daring to express their personality in what they wore.

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“She takes fashion seriously,” Ms. O’Neill said of Dr. Biden, calling the First Lady’s style “very feminine and classic” before adding this pre-inauguration, “she was definitely very aware of the decision she was making. . Indeed, if what Dr. Biden is wearing says anything, it’s that she seems to take real pleasure in clothes and that in fact one can enjoy fashion while being a serious person. Well, and she knows what she’s doing: she wore a pair of boots with “VOTE” written on it, in big white letters, during the campaign, and a jacket who read “Love” when introducing her husband to his first rally in 2019.

It’s not that every outfit contains a coded message; it would be exhausting to imagine and distort the way clothes are used. But each appearance is an expression of identity – for public officials and those who represent them as well as for everyone else. That’s why what Dr Biden and Ms Harris wear gets so much attention. Through their clothes, we think we can get to know them. And that’s why it wouldn’t be compromising for them – or, to be fair, for their offices – to admit it.

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Indeed, it is possible to imagine them taking the question of clothing and making it, say, a… learning moment.

For example, Ms. Harris and Dr. Biden often repackage clothes in their closets. (This has at times created a minor hubbub for Ms Harris, who, like many professionals, has Dolce & Gabbana pantsuits in her wardrobe, with Dolce having been attacked for various racist statements in recent years.) Why not l ‘admit and emphasize its connection to individual action and sustainability – and then use that to pivot to Biden’s climate agenda? If you are wearing an American designer, why not take this moment to focus not on the dress itself but on the industry that made it and how important it is to the country’s economic fabric?

“If it’s a goal-driven fashion, it’s something that should be celebrated and the information shared,” Ms. Kelley said. Ms. Harris and Dr. Biden set many precedents. It could be another.

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