To borrow a Redditism, today I learned that First Lady Jill Biden doesn't work with a stylist, making her the first sitting FLOTUS in the last three presidential terms to forgo the aid of a fashion expert. (Michelle Obama works with stylist Meredith Koop and Melania Trump with stylist/designer Hervé Pierre.)
In Vogue's August cover story by Jonathan Van Meter, Biden's communications director confirms the absence of any outside assistance, claiming that Biden's playful style is "all her." And while fashion is often the rhinestone-bedazzled medium for her messages (see: a "LOVE" blazer or "VOTE" boots), Biden rolls her eyes at the mention of the public's interest in what she wears, politely glossing over her fashion choices when asked about them. Van Meter chalks her unwillingness to engage as a "reading-the-room" tactic, especially during a pandemic. (Though considering the interview is for the cover of the ultimate fashion bible, hers is a bold if not understandable stance to take.)
"It's kind of surprising, I think, how much commentary is made about what I wear or if I put my hair in a scrunchie," she tells Van Meter, echoing the sentiments of first ladies before her. "I put my hair up! Or the stocking thing," she adds, referring to the internet's love of what appeared to be fishnet stockings. "It's amazing how much people pay attention to every little detail … And they weren't fishnets. They weren't lace. They were very pretty stockings."
Whereas Obama hired a stylist to dig into designer histories — someone to find the most meaningful and stylish pieces in an effort to elevate emerging American designers and communicate her values — Biden has made the decision to do this herself. This doesn't appear to be rooted in a deep love of fashion, even if that is the case, but in her desire to maintain as much of her pre-first lady life as possible, from her job to how she chooses to fill her closet. The role of the modern first lady is a challenging one to define, especially following a hellish year for the country. With her insistence upon keeping her life as normal as possible, Biden seems to be defining the role of FLOTUS all her own. Rather than transforming into what a first lady ought to be, she simply is.
As her own stylist, Biden has a tendency to fall back on bigger designer names with the occasional up-and-comer sprinkled throughout her wardrobe. At the inauguration, for example, she put Alexandra O'Neill's Markarian on the map with a monochromatic ensemble from the young, New York-based designer's collection. During her husband's 2020 victory speech, she wore a short-sleeve navy dress embroidered with flowers from Oscar de la Renta, a brand whose namesake designer was a favorite among many first ladies of administrations past. Biden wears a similar look from the brand, now helmed by Monse founders Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, on the Vogue cover. (The first lady was styled by longtime Vogue fashion director Tonne Goodman for the photoshoot.)
She appears windblown in the cover image, bracing herself against the iron railing of the White House balcony as the Washington Monument looms large in the background, a headless tower of white bricks. Her posture is open and receptive — as casual as anything in Annie Leibovitz's portfolio. Biden was also photographed on the Oval Office patio with her husband Joe. He appears thoughtful and doting at her side, if not a tad overenthusiastic — the characteristic dynamic of their public-facing relationship. She wears another American designer, Michael Kors — a monochromatic olive green ensemble in her preferred cinch-waist silhouette.
But it's the third photo, one depicting the professor with a pencil between her teeth, glasses on, bent over a rose gold Macbook, that is the most striking. She's surrounded by so many props that the image reads as unintentionally camp-y, as Leibovitz's photos often do: There's the stationary (blank) stamped with Joe Biden's name; the open lesson planner highlighted and sticky-noted; the smudge-less white ceramic coffee cup resting on its matching saucer. Even the coffee table book on which she rests her laptop appears to be meaningfully patriotic, a sliver of the Statue of Liberty peeking out for the camera. She wears a white button down and suede skirt, both by USA Olympic uniform designer Ralph Lauren. Put together, the effect is that of a renaissance painting, perfectly staged to capture the priorities of its consumed subject.
The image is an idealized portrait of the vision Van Meter paints in the piece: Dr. Jill Biden as educator and loyal surrogate, traveling the country to sell families on the American Rescue Act and the American Families Plan. It's hard to imagine that her days look as calm as the East Sitting Hall image, as Van Meter writes of Zoom classes taught on the road, early morning texts with students, and mad dashes to the airport so as to keep up with her schedule. It's no wonder, then, that both the president and first lady discuss difficulty finding time to schedule a date night here or there. But she finds a way to make it all work, in spite of the doubters.
"I heard that all the time during the campaign," she says of people assuming she'd quit her job. "Like, 'No. You're not going to be able to teach as first lady.' And I said, 'Why not? You make things happen, right?' "
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