A day of surreal optics, as the phrase goes, where every expression is parsed and gif’d instantaneously is necessarily a day about one wears—because what can speak louder in a day of powerful and symbolic imagery than what one is wearing and how one is wearing it?
Then there is the rain, which can screw everything up.
And so it was on Inauguration Day that the powerful engaged in a silent game of sartorial semiotics: the smiles and chitter-chatter of small-talk in smart suits and dresses concealing unbridgeable ideological and cultural differences, and the rancor of political battle—which, in an appropriately angry and apparently endless red tie, Donald Trump immediately ratcheted up in his angry, dystopian inauguration speech.
If the commentators found themselves enraptured by Melania Trump wearing a powder-blue cashmere dress and matching bolero jacket by Ralph Lauren, which looked—as has been widely agreed—very Jackie O, circa JFK’s 1961 inauguration, Michelle Obama’s much simpler burgundy dress and coat held their own meaning.
Mrs. Trump’s dress, which she wore with her hair up, moving with the same exacting grace as pop-culture’s most gracious puppet, Lady Penelope on Thunderbirds, was a dress that spoke of emphatic arrival and the assumption of power.
It was a softly tailored suit of armor; the most feminine exemplar of power dressing, which Jackie Kennedy invented.
If she is the style gold standard any First Lady must live in the shadow of, if not actively aspire to emulate, Mrs. Trump, who herself has spoken admiringly of Mrs. Kennedy, completed the look with retro, luxe-looking gloves.
In so doing, Melania Trump transmits a meaningful message about the kind of First Lady she wants to be: stylish, iconic, a fashion plate, a First Lady synonymous with grace.
But Mrs. Kennedy’s iconography is inextricably tied up with the iconography of Camelot and a certain period of American idealism and youth—and, as of yet at least, her husband’s White House does not stand for that. (See the movie Jackie, which makes the case that Jackie herself calculatingly and determinedly originated the Camelot legend.)
The White House website, freshly scrubbed of its record on LGBT rights, climate change, and civil rights, now includes mention of Melania’s QVC jewelry range.
Up until the inauguration, the world of fashion had been split on the issue of dressing Mrs. Trump.
Given her husband’s oratory towards minorities and women, and fears that LGBT equality will be under fire in his administration, many designers refused to dress her in protest.
In dressing Mrs. Trump on inauguration day, Ralph Lauren became the highest-profile designer to dress the new First Lady.
A spokesman for the designer said: “The presidential inauguration is a time for the United States to look our best to the world. It was important to us to uphold and celebrate the tradition of creating iconic American style for this moment.”
Mrs. Trump has also worn Norisol Ferrari and Reem Acra at inauguration events; and, as The New York Times reported, Karl Lagerfeld has reportedly designed her gowns for the inauguration balls. All shall be revealed tonight.
Lauren immediately faced protest on social media from those decrying his decision to dress Mr. Trump’s wife, and it will be fascinating to see two things—if those protests have any financial effect on him and other designers who dress Mrs. Trump, and if other designers are emboldened by Lauren to court her.
Lauren had his very own ace up a perfectly tailored sleeve: he had also designed the white trouser suit worn by Hillary Clinton. (The designer has a bipartisan history, dressing former First Ladies from Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush to Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama).
Michelle Obama’s dress—a belted short-sleeve maroon dress by Jason Wu—was significant in its own way. For one, it spoke of the intersection of comfort and loyalty—Wu designed Mrs. Obama’s inaugural gown in 2009, and also the navy dress she wore to President Obama’s farewell address in Chicago—and for the other it spoke of a person at ease with herself.
The contrast between the stiff power dressing of Melania Trump and the ease and informality of Michelle Obama was crystallized in their fashion choices. Mrs. Obama’s dress was a graceful farewell to dressing the part, whereas Melania Trump’s was a klaxon for the kind of unashamed Dynasty glamor she will bring to the White House. (To echo the color of her dress, Mrs. Trump bought the Obamas a gift from Tiffany’s, next door to Trump Tower, and now the subject of a New York Times investigation.)
As for her husband, Trump’s speech—with its apocalyptic and fearful visions of inner cities falling apart, and “American carnage”—came with, appositely enough, a blood-red tie that never seemed to end.
A simple appointment with a tailor might resolve Trump’s tie-tying issues, even if he will never be able to wear a suit with such sprucely confidence as Barack Obama.
The outgoing POTUS was, as ever, perfectly attired in slim suit and perfectly knotted and placed blue tie. In contrast, Trump glowered, and loomed over proceedings in a large overcoat. His clothes and demeanor added to the sense of his anger contrasted to his predecessor’s quieter optimism and faith, and he nervously patted his wild, strangely styled hair down, presumably fearing the potentially devastating effects of rain droplets on his otherworldly coiffure. Would it start to spit or steam? Or melt or fly off? That one fashion disaster was averted.
Elsewhere, power dressing covered both sides of the political aisle, with Hillary Clinton, Ivanka Trump, and Tiffany Trump all wearing head-to-toe white.
Given the color’s association with the women’s and suffragette movement (suffragists marched in white in the early ‘90s), Clinton’s cream-colored Ralph Lauren pantsuit and cashmere coat signaled solidarity with her feminist fans. Despite her crushing defeat, she looked as unflappable today as she did in the white suit when she accepted the Democratic nomination for president.
If the color amplified Clinton’s message on Inauguration Day, it looked pallid on Ivanka and Tiffany. Sure, Ivanka looked gorgeous in her ivory, asymmetrical-cut jacket and pants by Oscar de la Renta, but the strategic choice seemed as surface as her feminism. Ivanka’s white was glamorous and chic; Clinton’s was stately and magnanimous.
Tiffany’s outfit seemed like an afterthought by comparison to the others—a blinding white coat paired with scuffed black ankle boots—as though she threw on the coat at the last minute, after receiving a tip about the color’s historical context from a fashion consultant within the Trump administration.
“We will follow two simple rules,” President Trump said in his inaugural address, “buy American and hire American.”
In perhaps the most striking inauguration look, Trump’s senior advisor Kellyanne Conway wore a festive red, white, and blue Gucci coat to the ceremony, a look that she nicknamed “Trump Revolutionary Wear,”—though Twitter wondered if it was inspired by Paddington Bear or an American Girl doll, or perhaps Napoleon.