The first Joe and Jill Biden American Outreach tour, a.k.a. the Group of 7 meeting in Britain, came to a conclusion Sunday evening; though the president continued on to Brussels for NATO and a meeting with Vladimir Putin, the first lady returned to Washington. It had been, by most pundit-y accounts, a success: an effective use of the stagecraft of state to make the point that America is back at the table, ready to talk (and listen), once again an ally in the league of nations. That this administration, and this first family, is not like the last one.
To prevent anyone missing the message, Dr. Biden put it in bold, bright letters — literally, the word “Love” picked out in rhinestones on the back of the Zadig & Voltaire jacket she wore on day one of the gathering. And though there was much speculation that said garment was a sly riposte to the “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket that Melania Trump famously wore during her time as first lady, a likelier explanation is the one the Dr. Biden gave: “We’re bringing love from America.”
It’s enough of a statement, after all. And though members of Dr. Biden’s staff generally play down any idea that the first lady is using fashion to send a message — they want the focus on her work, not her wardrobe — this one was hard to deny.
It suggests that in fact the first lady is more than ready to use costume to make a point, especially at moments of high political theater like the G7, where the imagery is as choreographed as any of the meetings behind closed doors. She’s the model of the very canny first lady next door.
That’s why the G7 family photo, with the president smiling gamely in his dark suit and bright blue tie while sandwiched, albeit in a socially distant way, between Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, was so important; why Dr. Biden’s trip to visit schoolchildren with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, mattered; why the photo of the Bidens looking relaxed and cheerful with Queen Elizabeth II went ’round the world. They are pantomimes of international relations caught on camera for all to see, ones in which the supporting players — i.e. the families — are as much as part of the narrative arc as the policy statements.
And what the four days of the G7 demonstrated is that when it comes to playing that part, which is in many ways about dressing the part, Dr. Biden has her own ideas about how it should be done.
Those ideas have less to do with fashion diplomacy as recently defined — characterized by the origin of brands or nationality of designers and what might actually be on sale at the moment and whether you can get the look or more likely just dream about it — and more to do with accessibility, color psychology and the value of shopping not the catwalks, but one’s closet.
The precedent was set when the president and Dr. Biden deplaned on Wednesday in matching outfits: he in a dark navy suit, bright white shirt and dark blue-and-white striped tie; she in a navy double-breasted jacket, white Michael Kors dress and navy shoes. Together they presented a picture of coordination and teamwork (and a contrast to the first international tour of the former president and his wife, which featured the notorious batting-away-of-the-hand incident).
June 14, 2021, 9:00 a.m. ET
Next came the “Love” blazer, with a polka-dot Brandon Maxwell dress. Aside from the obvious text, what was most interesting about the jacket was that the first lady has been wearing it regularly in the public eye since 2019, choosing it for various campaign events. As subtext, that may actually be a more calculated and credible statement than any covert slap at Mrs. Trump.
After all, rewearing clothes is a basic way to combat fashion’s contribution to climate change, which is high on the Biden administration agenda and also happened to be one of the key issues of the summit. Not to mention a cause of Carrie Johnson, Mr. Johnson’s wife, who made her own fashion news by renting pretty much all of the outfits she wore as hostess of the G7 (just as she rented her dress for their recent surprise wedding). That could have been a coincidence, of course, though either way it was probably a conversation starter and shared point of contact.
So it went. Dr. Biden wore white — the color of peace, fresh starts and détente, at least in European tradition — again when she and the duchess toured an elementary school, along with a pink blazer with floral lining, which harmonized with Catherine’s fuchsia McQueen dress. Later came a trench coat by Gabriela Hearst and bag by Marina Larroudé at the dinner with the royal family; a black-and-white Carolina Herrera to attend church Sunday morning; and a powder blue dress and jacket for the Bidens’ final audience with the queen.
The dress and jacket once again matched the blue of the president’s tie, thus allowing the Bidens to end the trip the way they began: as a united front. It may be the lasting image of the event.
As it happened, however, the first lady had also worn that dress-and-jacket before (the Herrera, too). That may not seem like a big deal, but for someone in the public eye to make such choices deliberately for moments that have been organized in large part for the cameras is a real departure from recent tradition, and one that sets a tone about moving away from a culture of disposability. It’s not about rejecting fashion, but rather about valuing the fashion you have.
In the end, aside from the sheer friendliness of her clothing, which never looks restrictive or constrained or overly formal or even as fancy as it is (because it can be pretty fancy), this repetition may be the most significant, and potentially influential, aspect of her image-making. More than any boosterism for American brands or female-led brands, it could be the takeaway that lasts.
Assuming, of course, she does it again.