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Why Every Former First Lady Wore Shades of Purple to the 2021 Inauguration

Laura Bush wore periwinkle. Hillary Clinton donned grape. Michelle Obama was in burgundy.

As each former first lady stepped out onto the steps of the Capitol Building, the shades of purple were impossible to ignore.

That was the point. After two weeks — and four years — of partisan division, which culminated in a violent insurrection on the very same steps where the inauguration took place today, the first ladies sent a strong message using the power of their fashion. The color purple has come to represent political bipartisanship, the literal mixture of Republican Red and Democrat Blue. The color’s symbolism of unity, solidarity and coming together has also been a central message of president Joe Biden.

michelle obama, 2021 inauguration, first lady fashion
Barack and Michelle Obama at the 2021 Inauguration. The former first lady wore a burgundy dress, coat and belt by designer Sergio Hudson.
CREDIT: AP Images
hillary clinton, first lady style, first lady hillary clinton
Bill and Hillary Clinton at the 2021 Inauguration. The former first lady also wore purple in giving her concession speech after running against Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
CREDIT: AP Images

Purple was not just the choice of the first ladies; Kamala Harris also wore the color to be sworn in as the first woman vice president in U.S. history. Harris has often chosen the color throughout not just the 2020 general election but also in her own presidential bid during the democratic primaries. The hue is not just a message of unity, it is also a nod to Shirley Chisholm, who was the first woman, first Black person and first Black woman to run for president in the U.S., in her 1972 Democratic bid.

Along with white and gold, the color purple has also long been known as a color of U.S. suffragettes: white representing purity, purple for loyalty and gold for hope (British suffragettes used white, green and purple). When Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech the day after the 2016 election, she wore black jacket with a royal purple satin lapel and matching shirt.

kamala harris, 2021 inauguration
Vice President Kamala Harris with husband Doug Emhoff and President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, before their swearing in. The VP has often favored wearing shades of purple to honor Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president, in 1972.
CREDIT: AP Images

Just two weeks ago, the Capitol steps were a sea of red MAGA hats, an accessory that has not only become a partisan symbol but more recently a more overt badge of hatred and violence, and a literal emblem of the blood that was shed on January 6. Today, the only swath of red that was visible at the Capitol came from Lady Gaga’s Schiaparelli gown, which was perhaps an ill-chosen option (in color, in lack of American designer) in hindsight, given others’ fashion choices of the moment.

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George W. and Laura Bush at the 2021 Inauguration.
CREDIT: AP Images

The purple hues were a stark contrast to the new former first lady, Melania Trump. At her husband’s farewell speech from Joint Andrews Base, she was dressed in all black, a somber choice suggesting the mourning of the Trump presidency coming to an end. Second Lady Karen Pence also donned black in attending the inauguration with former vice president Mike Pence.

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