BIDEN’S CLOTHES CALL: When it comes to first ladies, fashion can be a footnote, a goodwill gesture, a gaffe, a message, meaningless, practical or just about anything else imaginable. Somehow everyone has an opinion about photo-op choices.
When First Lady Jill Biden toured two recently reopened schools with newly minted Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Wednesday — one in his hometown of Meridien, Conn. and the other in Watertown, Pa. — the focus was on getting students and teachers back in classrooms safely. Wearing an off-white dress, pale mauve blazer and coordinating pale mauve mask, Biden spoke of how teachers want to be back in their schools. As a lifelong educator who is teaching remotely, she spoke of firsthand experience. After the fact, FLOTUS’ press secretary Michael LaRosa said there would be no comment on the first lady’s clothes.
Asked if not commenting on the first lady’s clothes will be a standard policy, he said, “Correct, we will not be commenting on her clothes.”
As to why the decision had been made not to comment on the first lady’s clothes and whether the administration is considering or vetting any individuals to potentially champion the fashion industry, LaRossa wrote, “Nothing else to share.”
As reported last month, Fast Company journalist Elizabeth Serrano sparked a call for President Joseph R. Biden to appoint a “fashion czar,” or high-level policy adviser, to help propel sustainability. Representatives from Everlane, Allbirds, Reformation, ThredUp, Mara Hoffman and other apparel companies have signed a letter in support of the idea. The $368 billion fashion sector is a major domestic employer. But the pandemic has accentuated the decrease in U.S. textile and apparel manufacturing jobs, which were already falling due to the continued trend of offshore production and increased automation.
While many of Biden’s predecessors did not make fashion a focal point, her team’s upfront policy about not commenting on her clothes is a switch. Through various administrations, East Wing staffers have periodically shed some light on the first lady fashion choices for key occasions such as diplomatic visits, state dinners and the weddings of their children. In a 2013 appearance on “The Tonight Show,” Michelle Obama inadvertently gave J. Crew’s sales a boost by telling Jimmy Fallon that she was wearing the brand. At one point, Jackie Kennedy, whose fashion became her signature, was lambasted by the media for her pricey designer purchases and scorned for European choices as opposed to American-made.
In times of economic hardship, however, buoying up struggling industries have been part of a national directive. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, former President George W. Bush intimated that shopping was one way Americans could carry on. Over the inauguration festivities, Jill Biden, a small-business advocate, showed some patriotism by selecting styles from American designers Markarian’s Alexandra O’Neill, Gabriela Hearst and Jonathan Cohen.
The public interest has made the Smithsonian a destination for many. More recently, “Every Eye is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” a National Portrait Gallery exhibition, explored the historical significance of the job title through portraiture.
New York-based designer Dennis Basso said, “Every first lady and their administration has their choice of how they want to speak about their clothing.” As for whether it’s the time for such discretion given the ailing state of the garment industry and the number of people eager to have manufacturing jobs, he declined to comment. Several other designers declined or did not respond to requests for comment.