The Deep Meaning of the Color Purple at the Biden Inauguration
It’s the color of royalty, the badge of honor bestowed on heroic soldiers, and a call for unity at a time of political division.
BY JESSICA IREDALE JAN 20, 2021
The inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s was awash in the color purple. From Dr. Jill Biden’s head-to-toe violet ensemble by Jonathan Cohen Studio the night before to the brilliant shade of Harris’s jewel-toned coat and dress to the rich plum tone of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s swaggering jacket, turtleneck and wide-leg trousers cinched with a demonstrative gold buckle belt for the ceremony itself.
Harris and Obama were dressed by two young Black American designers who grew up in the South, Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson, respectively. (Hudson also designed Harris’s pumps.)
Vice President Kamala Harris, in Christopher John Rogers, and former First Lady Michelle Obama, in Sergio Hudson, at the Biden inauguration.OLIVIER DOULIERYGETTY IMAGES
Former Senator, Secretary of State, presidential candidate and First Lady Hillary Clinton wore a vivid purple Ralph Lauren pantsuit and matching scarf under a deep maroon coat, a nod to the Ralph Lauren pantsuit she wore to deliver her concession speech in 2016. Former First Lady Laura Bush’s ladified jacket danced on the line between lilac and powder blue, and Senator Amy Klobuchar channeled the hue with her scarf. Even outgoing Vice President Mike Pence’s tie, typically ruby red, appeared to be plucked from the burgundy region of Pantone's purple family.
Hillary Clinton in Ralph Lauren at President Joe Biden’s inauguration.JONATHAN ERNSTGETTY IMAGES
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The color purple is rich with symbolism. It’s the color of royalty, and as Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, senior historian of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, points out, “Our democracy came out of a monarchy and colonial situation. We've never had our own royalty so we tend to project that desire.”
It’s the color of the Purple Heart, the badge of honor and bravery bestowed by the United States military on veterans wounded or killed in the line of duty. It’s the title of Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the plight of African American women in the South, a parallel with meaning not lost on the occasion of the swearing in of Harris, the first woman, the first Black and South Asian American to the office of Vice President.
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Vice President Kamala Harris at Wednesday’s presidential inauguration.ANGELA WEISSGETTY IMAGES
But today the color purple was also as simple as 1, 2, 3. Paint by numbers: red + blue = purple. It was a call for unity to heal the great schism between the Republican and Democratic parties’ reds and blues that have drifted into caustic, violent contention in the last 12 years.
One could argue it’s just fashion, nothing more than colorful dresses, coats and ties. But sartorial gestures have the potential to take on great meaning. Seeing a few flashes of purple on Wednesday morning was much different than the wave of red hats that dominated the National Mall four years ago.