Many Inauguration Attendees Turn Out for Obama's Big Day in Their Sunday Best

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 2009

On the far western reaches of the Mall, near the Washington Monument, the throngs gathered in the wee hours for the swearing-in of Barack Obama as the first African American president. They had to wait until the sun was high in the sky before witnessing the historic moment that had drawn them here. So most people endured the long wait in frigid temperatures by wrapping themselves in well-worn blankets and layering on as many pieces of clothing as they could manage without turning into Weebles.

But in between those folks bundled in jeans and parkas, leggings and sweat shirts, there were some who refused to be reduced to informality. They would wear their cashmere trousers and their mink-lined coats and so what if that meant they couldn't stretch out on the ground to make their wait more comfortable? They would stand. Dignified.

For them, that historic Tuesday afternoon required the reverence typically reserved for Sunday morning. They'd come to the Mall to hear a sermon of hope, and they waved their American flags in a patriotic chorus of "Amen."

"I wanted to wear something warm and presentable. I didn't want to wear sweats, not on a day like this. It means a lot. On a day like this, it's a little like getting ready to go to church," said Alexander Heatrice, 29. The Oklahoma native is in his fourth year at Howard University dental school and was dressed in a sober black overcoat and a fedora with a tiny feather tucked into its black band.

"We can put on a sweat suit any day. This is a special day," he said. "I put on my Sunday best -- but without the full suit."

Singer Aretha Franklin, keeping all her voluptuous business under wraps, looked as though she could have stepped out of a black-and-white photograph of Harlem ladies headed to service on Communion Sunday. For her performance during the swearing-in, she stepped forward in a gray coat with matching gloves and a glorious hat. It was magnificent with its pillbox shape and bodacious bow. In fact, it was more than a mere Sunday morning church service hat. Her millinery proclaimed: "I am going to Sunday service and I plan on sticking around all afternoon. Hallelujah!"

For some of those gathered, it didn't matter that they lacked invitations for an up-close view of the pomp and the dignitaries. The day still required a certain formality. For them, it was not merely about putting on a fancy fur coat, although there were plenty of women -- and some men -- swaddled in them. Rudy Carn, from Atlanta, wore black trousers, black leather-and-suede boots and a full-length blue fox coat that he'd purchased in Alaska. "Eight hundred dollars!" he exclaimed. "I don't wear jeans and a T-shirt. Growing up, my mother didn't let us wear jeans." Like so many, he wanted to witness history. And history, he said, deserves more respect than baggy sweats can deliver.

Others dressed well because they not only wanted to watch history unfold, they planned to be part of it. Tamala Crawford, 41, came from Los Angeles and wore the fur coat her father had given her and earmuffs so she would not disturb her immaculate and elaborate hairdo. "I didn't want to mess up my hairdo in case Barack sees me," she said with a smile. She'd dressed up out of respect. And she brought her video camera so that she could create a time capsule for her 4-year-old daughter, Sophia.

But ultimately, for those who believe that clothes can send powerful messages and have the capacity to make one stand straighter, taller and with more pride, the day required fine attire because it was a day of giving praise that their prayers had been answered.

"I wanted to look special," said Yolanda Burroughs, 40, from Houston. She wore black velvet pants with a matching coat with a strand of pearls twisted around her neck. Her makeup was meticulously applied. "We've come too far in history to show up in sweats and warm-up pants."

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