Jill Biden’s inauguration dresses get their place in history

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The two ensembles installed in the first ladies exhibition Wednesday afternoon, one in shimmering ocean blue and the other in ethereal ivory, reflect an American history that’s both heartbreaking and reassuring. First lady Jill Biden wore the dresses, with their matching coats, on Inauguration Day in 2021, which was a day that seemed only to have happened by a combination of luck, tenacity and the grace of God.

It wasn’t a peaceful transfer of power, but the country managed to begin a new chapter nonetheless.

“Clothing is an art and articulation. It’s a manifestation of a moment of time,” Biden said during the ceremony to mark the donation. “It’s history. And today, I’m deeply honored to play a small part in a big moment of our history.”

Two years ago, Biden stood alongside her husband on the west front of the Capitol holding a Bible as he took the oath of office. Spread out before her were reminders of everything the country had suffered. The pandemic had taken 400,000 lives and robbed a population of intimacy. There was no crush of citizens and neighbors huddled together trying to catch a glimpse of the new president. Instead, the Capitol building looked out on the National Mall and a field of 200,000 flags that stood in for the missing crowd. The few invited guests sat at a distance from each other. Apart but together — that was the mantra used to fight off the loneliness and isolation caused by the pandemic.

A multitude of protesters once filled the surrounding streets, voices demanding justice for George Floyd, who had been murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. The White House, her soon-to-be-home, was just a stone’s throw from what had become Black Lives Matter Plaza. And, of course, on the very platform where she stood, insurrectionists had attempted to overthrow the election on January 6.

Democracy survived, barely

And so, on that historic Inauguration Day, the first lady wore blue. Specifically, it was a dress decorated with pearls and crystals along with a matching velvet-trimmed coat by Alexandra O’Neill, the founder and designer of Markarian — a young label established in New York in 2017.

“Her designs seemed both timeless and new,” Biden said during the ceremony at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “And that was exactly what I was hoping to find. Because young people showed up and voted for Joe in historic numbers. And I wanted to reflect their passion, creativity and hope that day.”

The color signified optimism. This was no small thing. It wasn’t a useless dash of poetry intended to inflate a mere dress into something more significant. The hue was a symbol at a time when the country was in need of grace. Americans needed a sign that even if democracy felt like it was falling apart, there remained the possibility that it could be put back together.

The Markarian ensemble wasn’t aimed at turning fashion on its head. It wasn’t the work of a designer trying to create an aesthetic explosion. Instead, it was reassuring and dignified, which was what the Biden administration had promised voters it would be.

Gabriela Hearst designed Biden’s evening ensemble and it, too, was made in New York. The ivory, mid-calf dress with its accompanying coat was embroidered with the flowers of each state and territory. “My focus on Inauguration Day was being a first lady for all Americans — doing my part to bring our country back together,” Biden said. The dress expresses that desire for unity, hints at a new beginning and offers a nod of respect to the American garment industry.

Hearst created this ensemble in lieu of a ball gown, something that was unnecessary because there were no inaugural balls, no traditional photograph of the president and his spouse embraced in a dance. The first lady wore Hearst’s designs to a celebratory concert at the Lincoln Memorial. And she stood on a balcony at the White House, a corsage on her wrist, and her eyes fixed on the night sky as it was lit up by fireworks.

An inauguration like no other

While other presidents came into office in the absence of inaugural balls, Biden made history by having her day ensemble join her evening one in the Museum of American History. Each is also accompanied by its matching mask. “They’re just small pieces of cloth, but they represent the enormity of what we faced at the time: A pandemic that changed our world forever. Months of closed schools and businesses. A virtual presidential campaign. So much time spent apart,” Biden said. “But these masks also represent the moments of courage and kindness that helped us through the worst of it.”

The masks, even more than the garments, are a reminder of the complexity of the times. While they certainly recall the generosity of neighbors during perilous days, the masks are also the seed out of which so much more political divisiveness grew. They’re reminders of ingenuity and resilience, but also the stridency that grew from this country’s stubborn belief in individualism and personal freedom above all else. The masks, like the garments, speak to the power of costumes to communicate history with a glance.

“This exhibition is and has always been about much more than gowns,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the secretary of the Smithsonian, at the event. “They’re here to tell a story: a story about gender, about power and about public symbolism.”

Each first lady crafts the job to her personality; it reflects, at least in some small measure, her preferences and desires. Biden has notably continued to teach while also serving as the country’s host, which is really what defines the job of first lady, not her marital status. Other women who have dresses in the exhibition were not presidential spouses but daughters or daughters-in-law or a sister. The exhibition doesn’t highlight a marital relationship but a societal one. The collection’s purpose is to help visitors better understand how people live their lives and do their job, even if a significant part of that job is attending a reception.

“You get an idea of how people function, how they moved,” said Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of political history. Costume helps us feel closer to “people we may never meet. We can get a feel for them.”

Someday history will be made when the person serving in the role of first lady is a husband or son or brother. “I look forward to adding some menswear to this gallery in the future,” Biden said. The name of the exhibition might have to change, but it will still tell a story about gender, power and public symbolism. It will continue to tell the complicated story of this country.

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