Women’s attire attracted heavy attention at President Biden’s inauguration, and rightly so. When Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton all show up wearing purple, it must mean something. The consensus view is that it stood for unity; Republican red + Democrat blue = purple. Also, purple was in the suffragist flag (1908), and Harris’s purple may have been in homage to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first to run for President (1972), who favored the color.
Virtually unnoticed—perhaps entirely unnoticed—was Biden’s clothing. That makes sense; it was 100% standard-issue presidential attire. But in fact Biden’s dress has been sending messages since he declared his candidacy 21 months ago. The wardrobe history of the Biden campaign reflects strategic thinking and discipline. It’s divided into three distinct and clearly deliberate phases.
Candidate Biden was regular-guy Joe from Scranton—but then again, not quite regular. He seemed to be following a long-standing practice in the management consulting game: Dress like the clients, but a little better. He almost never wore a suit or tie except on the televised debates and during the Democratic convention, but neither did he wear jeans and sneakers. His go-to uniform was a dark-blue jacket (essentially a blazer, but no brass buttons—too flashy), non-matching trousers, and an open-collared blue or striped shirt. The message was “serious, important, but not stuffy,” and he stayed on message.
President-elect Biden emerged suddenly and strikingly, within hours of the Associated Press declaring him the election’s winner on Nov. 7. From that moment on, he has rarely appeared without a tie or wearing anything other than a dark suit. The intended message was clear: Others may dispute the outcome of the election, but make no mistake, I’m the next President. Yet, appropriately for his in-between status, his dress didn’t quite go full presidential. His shirts were sometimes blue; they had button cuffs. He occasionally wore a pin-striped suit. His ties were often striped, which is fine for a President, but a step below the gravitas of a solid color. True aficionados noted that the stripes on his ties went from the wearer’s upper right to lower left, which is the American style. Stripes that go the other way —as on virtually all of Barack Obama’s striped ties—are English-style. Too subtle for 99.98% of the population? Probably.
President Biden declared himself President, sartorially, on Inauguration Day. Only then did he go full presidential—solid dark suit, white shirt with French cuffs, cuff links with some kind of crest, solid Democrat-blue tie, fiercely polished black shoes. The message: Relax—I will look and behave the way Americans expect of a President.
Clothing is a language, and Biden or his handlers are fairly fluent in it. Washington’s women will surely continue to get the most attention for their attire, but keep an eye on the President’s clothing. Whatever it may be, it’s intentionally telling us something.