The day after President Biden announced his plans to run for re-election, he and First Lady Jill Biden hosted South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and his wife, Kim Keon-hee, for a state dinner at the White House. While the Bidens focused on the usual details of hosting such an event, including the menu and décor, they curiously omitted any mention of what the first lady was wearing.
This is a significant omission, given the historical importance of first ladies’ fashion choices as signals of their identity and role within the administration. First ladies’ gowns have been donated to the National Archives and collected by the Smithsonian, and their choice of designer can spotlight creativity and tell a story about administration values. Even the decision to rewear a garment can be a powerful statement.
Despite the significance of fashion in first ladies’ roles, Dr. Biden seems to be intentionally rejecting this tradition. While her staff carefully planned every aspect of the state dinner, they did not release any information about her dress. This deliberate decision contrasts with the effective use of fashion by former first lady Michelle Obama, who highlighted American industry and cross-border cooperation with her wardrobe.
Instead of using fashion as a symbol of aspiration, which was associated with former first lady Melania Trump, Dr. Biden is using it as a statement of no statement. She has positioned herself as the working first lady next door, rather than a trophy on a pedestal. This state dinner was a reminder of that framing and perhaps a foreshadowing of her role in the upcoming campaign.
Vice President Kamala Harris, on the other hand, did choose to make a fashion statement by wearing a bright blue jacket with a jet beaded belt over a black velvet column from South Korean designer Miss SoHee. This choice highlights the power of fashion as a tool of diplomacy and signaling.
As the 2024 election looms, fashion may become an even more significant line in the sand between the current first lady and her potential opponent, Donald J. Trump. Regardless, Dr. Biden’s deliberate omission of fashion details at this state dinner signals a departure from traditional first lady roles and a commitment to her own unique approach.