The Power of Fashion: Relive the Presidential Inauguration Looks That Made a Statement

As the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden approaches, with it comes highly anticipated fashion. Read on for the role clothes have played in making a statement on Inauguration Day.

By Samantha Schnurr Jan 18, 2021 12:00 PMTags
Watch: Joe Biden Wins 2020 U.S. Election: Celebrities React

When it comes to the White House, fashion goes beyond looks.  

"As First Lady, I was slowly watching myself being exposed to the world," Michelle Obama recalled in her 2020 Netflix documentary, Becoming. "I had to become more strategic in how I presented myself because it had the potential of defining me for the rest of my life."

"Fashion for a woman still predominates how people view you and that's not fair, that's not right, but it's true," she pointed out. "That's when fashion isn't just fashion. It's how do you turn it into your tool rather [than] being a victim of it."

Indeed, before the country's leaders—particularly women—open their mouth to speak, their clothing has already spoken for them. And, while it can often seem superficial or trivial, fashion can be a powerful, advantageous force in the White House if used properly. As demonstrated by several first ladies like Obama, many have used it to show the world not only quite literally who they are, but also what they care about, who they want to uplift and what kind of image they want to evoke long after their duties are done.

While the country's male leaders have yet to take as much advantage of this influential outlet—or the world unfairly pays less attention—the sartorial story of White House women officially begins on, as its name suggests, Inauguration Day.

Stars Playing the First Lady

As a day packed with multiple events, Inauguration Day gives members of the First and Second Families many opportunities to wear designers they want to spotlight, trends they want to promote and even colors that can elicit a certain feeling as they step out in the public eye, simultaneously ushering in a new term for the country. 

Now, as the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden approaches on Wednesday, Jan. 20, all eyes will be on the president-elect, along with the soon-to-be First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. As style experts wait to unpack any statement-making fashion that arises, it certainly won't be the first time. Keep scrolling to revisit decades of Inauguration Day fashion that packed as much power as it did style. 

Lady Bird Johnson, 1965

In a bright yellow satin gown and matching fur-trimmed coat designed by John Moore, Lady Bird Johnson evoked the optimism the country needed on her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson's Inauguration Day, which came just over a year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Rosalynn Carter, 1977

First Lady Rosalynn Carter proved to be well ahead of the times when she sported a gold-embroidered coat over a matching gold-trimmed blue chiffon gown to the 1977 inaugural balls, the same dress she wore six years earlier for President Jimmy Carter's inauguration as Georgia governor. The decision set her apart from previous First Ladies and signaled her own take on the new role, decades before sustainable fashion would become a more mainstream issue. 

Laura Bush, 2001

For the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush demonstrated how meaningful fashion can be when she sported a vivid blue outfit by Michael Faircloth, a designer from Laura's native Texas.

Michelle Obama, 2009

When First Lady Michelle Obama stepped out in 2009 for President Barack Obama's first inauguration, she did so in an unexpected color: "lemongrass," according to the outfit's designer, Isabel Toledo. "The color of this dress was a very gentle, subtle tone of sage, but I called it 'lemongrass' to express an emotion more than a color. I hoped this tone would evoke the idea of rebirth and renewal. This color expressed a warmth and a pacific, calming emotion and symbolized a new day," she explained in her memoirRoots of Style.

"I have always loved colors that are difficult to describe, because that way, everyone can own them," Toledo continued. "To some, this 'lemongrass' color was more like a sunflower. It was later also described as pale gold, corn husk, mustard, sunshine, mellow yellow, sandy ochre, and newborn celery. But that was the point: color and beauty are in the eye of the beholder, and therefore are open to many interpretations. The more something is multifaceted and can be interpreted in many different ways, the longer its lifespan and the wider its reach."

Michelle Obama, 2009

Considering the great power and influence first ladies can exert through their fashion choices, First Lady Michelle Obama's 2009 inaugural gown was notable as she opted for a white, one-shoulder design by Jason Wu. She has since been credited with turning the young, emerging designer into a household name, having worn his designs on multiple occasions during President Barack Obama's two terms, including again for the balls of his second inauguration in 2013.

Michelle Obama, 2013

Of the many style hallmarks of her eight years in office, First Lady Michelle Obama's frequent mixing of high and more budget-friendly fashion has become a notable element of her sartorial legacy. Such was the case at both inaugurations—when she wore green J. Crew gloves in 2009 and then turned to the brand again in 2013 for a bejeweled belt, purple gloves and heels to complete an outfit seen around the world. 

Beyoncé, 2013

When Beyoncé arrived at Barack Obama's 2013 inauguration tasked with performing "The Star-Spangled Banner," the world-famous star stunned in a black Emilio Pucci gown paired with a black Christian Dior coat and glamorously accented with Lorraine Schwartz emerald earrings. While the singer's standout ensemble was the talk of the Internet, it also has since become an unforgettable image as she later admitted to singing along to a pre-recorded track.

Melania Trump, 2017

As the most recent first lady, Melania Trump's baby blue dress and matching bolero by Ralph Lauren for the 2017 inauguration was especially notable considering some designers, including Marc Jacobs and Sophie Theallet, publicly opposed dressing Melania as a result of President Donald Trump's behavior and beliefs. Through his iconic brand, Ralph Lauren has both defined and become synonymous with American fashion. Multiple first ladies of differing political affiliations have donned the brand's designs over the years. "The Presidential Inauguration is a time for the United States to look our best to the world," a corporate spokesperson from Ralph Lauren told Glamour. "It was important to us to uphold and celebrate the tradition of creating iconic American style for this moment."

Jacqueline Kennedy, 1961

The style of Melania Trump's ensemble, complete with matching gloves and heels, also spurred comparisons to former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who had donned a similar silhouette and, according to some photos, shade of blue for President John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Years earlier, Melania had cited Jacqueline as an inspiration should she ever become first lady. "I would be very traditional. Like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy," she told an interviewer in 1999, the same year her now-husband announced his first run. "I would support him."

Hillary Clinton, 2017

At the 2017 inauguration, Hillary Clinton, who had lost to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, donned a white ensemble also by Ralph Lauren. The color has long been associated with the suffragettes. As for sporting the same designer as Melania Trump, the decision could have been interpreted as a symbol of unity across party lines. "[It's important to note]," a source told Glamour, "Ralph Lauren deliberately took an apolitical stance by dressing Hillary Clinton [for the inauguration] and Michelle [Obama for inauguration weekend]."

Michelle Obama, Melania Trump, Donald Trump & Barack Obama, 2017

Another possible sign of unity came in the color scheme worn by the outgoing Obama administration and incoming Trump administration on Inauguration Day in 2017. While Barack Obama and Donald Trump donned ties in the colors of their political parties, their wives wore the opposite color, which read as a nod to harmony and cooperation.