On the cover of the glossy, Biden wears a long-sleeve, dark floral dress from the New York-based label Oscar de la Renta. The dress isn’t from just any American brand but one that has been worn by a multitude of first ladies. It’s Establishment fashion. Biden’s hair is carefully styled into a nonchalant tousle. She smiles.
She stands on a White House balcony with the Washington Monument rising in the distance. The image is stately. Not quite exuberant, but energetic. The cover signifies continuity after a staggering divergence.
Biden is only the third occupant of the East Wing to appear on the cover of Vogue, which despite all its recent struggles and missteps in a world more demanding of inclusivity and less tolerant of hierarchies, remains a cultural touchstone. Hillary Clinton was the first presidential spouse on the cover in 1998 and the occasion celebrated her dignity in the face of her husband’s impeachment. At the time of publication, Editor in Chief Anna Wintour told The Washington Post that the goal of the story, for which Clinton posed in a velvet Oscar de la Renta gown, was to “give her her due.” Michelle Obama was the second. She appeared on the cover three times. According to one Vogue headline, Obama was: “The first lady the world’s been waiting for.”
But simply being photographed for the inside pages of the magazine has been a rite of passage for first ladies dating back to Lou Henry Hoover in 1929. They have been faithfully captured in regal portraiture, images that put a time stamp on the state of the republic.
The highly stage-managed portraits rarely say much about the interior thoughts of the individual. They are defined by gleaming, self-conscious, controlled superficiality. They place the person in the great sweep of a popular history that exists outside museums, the ivory tower and heavily footnoted tomes. It’s from this glamorous gallery that former first lady Melania Trump was excluded.
This refusal is never fully discussed in the August story. Biden is not placed into the context of this Trumpian void, which means that the full weight of Biden’s presence in the magazine is not made plain. This is Biden’s moment, but the narrative of this first lady is just one chapter in a story that began long before she was born and will presumably continue after she is gone.
Trump’s omission from Vogue was a cultural statement more than it was a political one, which may be why it antagonized her supporters — as well as her husband — so much. The fashion industry, with its liberal leanings, was quick to voice its displeasure with the former administration. That animosity only grew over time. The former first lady was never acknowledged by an industry that still has the capacity to set beauty standards, validate gender norms, underscore feminine power, document fame and sate the ego with a portrait sitting that makes one look really, really pretty for the public record.
The omission was not an assault by the deep state. Instead, the willful gatekeepers of celebrity culture — the ones who celebrated Kim and Kanye, Beyoncé, Oprah and Lady Gaga — had slammed the entry shut. They ignored her. They declared her irrelevant. This was quite possibly an even more profound insult. Relevance — who is, what is not — has always been the brutal subtext of fashion, the engine that keeps it humming along.
But now, the gates are open wide. Biden’s tenure thus far is most notable for her decision to continue working at her day job, as a community college instructor. Her work is discussed often in the story, as a point of accessibility, as evidence of her stubborn desire for a wisp of normalcy in her abnormal situation.
“No one thought she could keep teaching,” Van Meter writes. “But as I traveled with Dr. Biden through much of April, I saw just how much time her day job took up: In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the entire retinue of staff, Secret Service, and press held at our hotel until well into the afternoon, when the motorcade finally hit the road for a nearly three-hour drive and a long evening of events in Arizona — because Dr. B was teaching her classes over Zoom.”
In one image, the teacher is at work, dressed in a Ralph Lauren skirt and blouse, a pencil clenched between her teeth as she sits hunched over a laptop in a work-from-home posture — an image that makes one wonder if the only ergonomically-sound desk in the White House is the one in the Oval Office.
It’s the kind of picture that is meant to show her tackling a task just like Every Woman but, of course, nothing about the image is common. She looks every inch the first lady as the country has long understood the position. The lighting is warm. The reality is heightened. She is reassuringly familiar but glossy.
The story includes romantic pictures of Biden with the president, as well as a family portrait with her grandchildren from several years ago. Every image captures a stillness. The characters are cast in a calm glow rather than a frenzied electricity. The pictures reflect the story, which is all about a country in need of a deep, cleansing breath.
Biden is part of a continuum. She’s the quiet after a storm. According to Vogue, she is, “A first lady for all of us.” In these partisan times, that too is a statement of both optimism and rebuke.