The Hidden Symbolism in First Ladies' Outfit Choices

Some might say that a dress is just a dress, but when it comes to politics, nothing is ever that simple. While some attention is paid to the suit selections of the president himself, most of the spotlight shines on the choices of the first lady, whose every sartorial decision can be interpreted as a political statement in itself. This is especially true during the inauguration, where a slew of back-to-back events provides the incoming first family an opportunity to set the tone for the next four years in ways both blatant (what they say) and subtle (what they wear).

This has long been the case—Jackie Kennedy is said to have written a 10-page letter to Diana Vreeland begging for her styling insights and was often reprimanded for her pricier tastes—but clothing has grown as a political signpost under the Obamas tenure. As The New York Times once wrote of Michelle Obama’s style, “She has turned the seemingly frivolous into political capital of her own,” by using it to support the overall American economy, the work of young, upstart (and frequently, immigrant) designers, as well as those from the foreign countries she often visited. A 2010 study of her economic impact conducted by New York University even found that the average value added to a brand worn by Mrs. Obama was a cool $14 million, proving that such seemingly frivolous choices can really pay off. High-fashion designers like Narciso Rodriguez and Prabal Gurung have reaped the benefits of this, but Obama has also peppered her wardrobe with more accessible pieces from the likes of J.Crew and Target—a notable move for a woman who entered the White House during a debilitating recession.

However, these choices are not always about economics. In fact, the colors a first lady or female politician wears can offer a host of symbolic interpretations that are not always as simplistic as supporting one party over another (blue for Democrats, red for Republicans). Hillary Clinton famously chose to wear white upon receiving the Democratic Party’s nomination this past year, a nod not just to purity but also to the preferred outfit color of the suffragist movement. When she later conceded the election to Donald Trump wearing a purple suit, it was seen as a gesture toward bipartisanship and unity, given that purple results from a mixture of red and blue.

With the next inauguration right around the corner, you’d be smart to keep all of this in mind when parsing the outfits of both Melania and Ivanka Trump—especially at the Inaugural Ball, where family members and previous first ladies will don show-stopping gowns that will be publicized all over the world (and then sent to the Smithsonian to be preserved). Scroll down to learn more about some of our favorite looks from Inaugural Balls of the past.