Jill Biden’s Fashion Will Tell a Different Story of America
"FLOTUS" is about to get a rebrand.
During his victory speech on Saturday evening, President-elect Joe Biden hit his familiar talking points — unity, faith, and “building back better.” But there was one line in particular that caught my attention: “I’m Jill’s husband.”
The 77-year-old victor spoke of his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, with the sort of loving language we haven’t heard from a president in four years. I jolted. This is what it feels like — what it's supposed to feel like. When Jill took the stage as he concluded his monologue, appearing behind him in an embroidered floral Oscar de la Renta dress and matching navy “46” face mask, I couldn't help but notice how their energy was in striking contrast to President Trump and Melania’s stiff and awkward shuffling and hand-swatting. Jill’s smile reached her eyes behind her mask, and it never let up.
In her role as FLOTUS, Jill will be more than just a paper doll reluctantly carrying out the duties traditionally forced upon the East Wing, like decorating the White House for Christmas, or holding her husband’s hand for what appears to be an agreed upon amount of time and not one second more. For the first time in history, the first lady of the United States will hold a job outside of the White House, continuing her work as an English professor at Northern Virginia community college. She's not just FLOTUS — she's professor, mom, grandma. She's Joe's wife.
While the position of first lady has always been rife with expectations of idealized American womanhood — however unfair that expectation may be — over the past few decades, the left and the right have diverged on how “womanhood” is even defined. For conservatives, it means stereotypically feminine dress, and adherence to the rules of a patriarchal society (read: motherhood and subordination to the head of the household, even if both husband and wife work). On the other side of the spectrum, is the inclusive belief that a woman is any woman who identifies as such, period. Joe's emphasis on unity as a basis for his campaign begs the question of whether or not Jill can appeal to conservatives and be something of a unifying force; it certainly wouldn't be the first time that a first lady was called upon to help make her husband appear more palatable to his detractors.
In terms of dress, Jill toes the partisan fashion line seamlessly, preferring feminine silhouettes and patterns, and rich, deep jewel tones. But everything she wears, she wears with an awareness of her role, the state of the union, and her audience; she understands that while image is a significant part of her impact, it’s not everything. Like Melania, she prefers statement heels — rock-stud Valentino heels, a blue suede lace-up stiletto — but so far she’s saved them for stages, not humanitarian relief efforts/PR stunts following a natural disaster. She’s even partial to “statement” fashion, like the Stuart Weitzman “VOTE” knee-high boots she wore on the campaign trail, or the "breathe positivity" mask from election night. Unlike the FLOTUS before her, though, Jill's messages radiate positivity, not immaturity.
I expect more from our first ladies in 2020. I expect compassion and integrity over photo opps and designer coats. In the social media age, which came about while Michelle Obama was in office, I expect a semblance of relatability, not a blogger with a luxury brand contract, and an endless supply of time to get the perfect shot. Melania’s Instagram feed is a sepia-tone wasteland of Mannequin Melania Moments that appear more staged than a Kardashian Tummy Tea ad — which would be fine, I guess, if we could make sense of what her message. (What does it mean to 'be best'?)
To be clear, I'm not against press release-type social media statements. I get it, politics is what it is. What I'm looking for is authenticity and understanding, and if it's not too much trouble, a rose gold chainmail Versace dress on the side.
In choosing Oscar de la Renta for her first public appearance as the future first lady, Jill signaled a return to both “normalcy” and tradition, following in the footsteps of decades of first ladies who preferred his styles, as well as fashion diplomacy, a strategy which was perfected by Michelle Obama during her eight years in the White House. Fashion diplomacy is simply leveraging the platform of the first lady, and particularly the attention to clothing detail, to send an unspoken message. (Obama wore the aforementioned Versace dress while hosting the Italian prime minister and his wife for a State Dinner, an homage to their country and display of goodwill.)
De la Renta’s personal story was a uniquely American one: Born in the Dominican Republic, he cut his teeth in Spain before making his way to the United States, where he eventually built his namesake label. His reputation for bold and joyful designs followed him through the decades as he dressed first ladies like Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and even Laura Bush, as well as celebrities from Princess Diana and Oprah to, most recently, Amal Clooney. While the crop of clientele he tended to was no doubt posh and political, the effect of his designs was always warm — not unlike the toothy grin he flashed for every camera — and to a degree, democratic. No matter the woman, she always looked good in an Oscar de la Renta dress. (Just ask Carrie Bradshaw.)
Today the label is helmed by co-creative directors Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, who also operate and founded the 5-year-old New York-based label Monse. The young designers embody the ODLR legacy well, injecting energy into tried-and-true designs, like the short-sleeve midi-dress worn by Jill on Saturday. And like their predecessor, whom they each worked for earlier on in their careers, both are immigrants to the United States.
It’s too early to tell if Jill will be a thorough study of fashion history, as Michelle Obama (with the help of a privately hired stylist) was, or if she will go the route of Melania Trump, whose logo-covered Louboutins, Birkin bags, and $50,000 coats communicated a kind of bourgeois indifference and the aspirational fruits of “capitalism” (read: nepotism and fraud) that her conservative base was so drawn to.
At the first presidential debate, Jill chose a green, long-sleeved Gabriela Hearst dress, which she’d worn at two previous public events. While past first ladies, most notably Rosalyn Carter, have repeated outfits as a show of relatability and modesty, Jill had another cause in mind: climate change. The dress practically screamed its symbolism at us — It’s by an American designer who has committed to reducing waste! It’s literally the color green! — which would lead us to believe that there was indeed consideration about how her looks will be interpreted from her perch in East Wing.
In 1886 Frances Cleveland was ridiculed for baring her shoulders in public; in 1993, Hillary Clinton’s cold-shoulder Donna Karan dress became the subject of mass media speculation; and in 2009, Michelle Obama was called “inappropriate” and “out of season” for baring her arms in a sleeveless Michael Kors dress for her official White House portrait. Given the historical precedent, I don’t doubt that Jill will face some kind of unfounded scrutiny for her wardrobe in the White House. But there’s already a fundamental difference between herself and her Melania Trump: Rather than attempting to conform to the mythical conservative ideal of an American woman, she simply is an American woman. And isn’t that all we can ask for?