Gone are the blood-red trees. Gone are the icy, sparkling branches and the images of a woman isolated in a winter wonderland (or a horror story, depending on your point of view).
Instead: red and white striped knit stockings with green heels dangling brightly from a fireplace, family photos, handwritten thank you notes and a bow with presents in bright red boxes.
The Biden White House Christmas decor, unveiled on Monday, isn’t nearly as stylized or surreal as the Trump-approved looks that preceded it. Oh, it’s a lot of upbeat and sparkly, but in the context of the recent White House vacation styles, it’s positively… accessible.
It is completely in line with the tactile, unpretentious image that the current first couple likes to radiate. The President and First Lady: Just like us! Their house is your house, just a little more. After all, it took 6,000 feet of ribbon, more than 300 candles, more than 10,000 ornaments and about 78,750 Christmas lights to dress the White House for the holidays, according to the first lady’s office.
That may sound extravagant, but like Jill Biden himself, whose (unofficial) job is to oversee the decoration, the effect was rather domestic – social media categorized it as “normal.” Whether the answer was complimentary or pejorative, it nodded at part of her husband’s campaign sales: a return to normalcy, after the turbulence and extremes of the Trump years. Since his election, it has been an underlying theme, a fundamental element of ‘Build Back Better’. For the holidays it’s ‘Gifts from the Heart’.
That’s why Christmas at the White House is such a useful moment of pageantry, especially at a time when the usual office communicative ceremonies — state dinners, White House tours — are suspended. Indeed, the office of Dr. Biden said she had been working on the decorations since late May. Covering the halls is one of the few widespread, or at least widely recognized rituals that we have. That’s handy. Most people can empathize.
That’s why Melania Trump’s choices caused so much controversy. Some – especially late TV presenters – found her alley of unnatural trees alienating; others saw them as ambitious, if unattainable (and all the more desirable because they were so unattainable). And that’s why the fact that the Biden look is so inconspicuous in itself is worth noting. It’s a tough balancing act to execute: walking the thin line between fancy and folksy; between representing the republic in the most polished degree and relating to the republic. Not only politically, but also visually.
Still, it’s a look that reflects the style of Dr. Biden has come to define, which can pretty much be summed up in the dress she wore to do her Christmas hostess duties: a forest green short-sleeved Oscar de la Renta number and a full skirt, splashed with white magnolias. Oscar de la Renta is, of course, a New York-based luxury brand founded by a Dominican, now designed by Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia; a similar style, albeit pink and sleeveless, is available from Saks for $3,990. That’s a lot for a dress, even for an occasion captured in photos for posterity.
But what about two occasions? Or three? Because the solution that Dr. Biden conceived and created, not to do what Rosalynn Carter did, when she tried to be recognizable during the stagflation of the late 1970s, and to apparently wear hand-woven clothing (which led to Ms. Carter being criticized for being frumpy), but rather to wear very expensive, high-quality clothes – to represent both the American fashion industry and the country’s aspirations – and then wear them again.
She did it on her first international trip, at the G7 in June, and when she represented the president at the Tokyo Olympics. And she did it again with her Christmas dress, which she wore just a month earlier – in Italy for lunch with husbands at the G20. This week she wore it to read to a class of sophomores and to thank a group of volunteers who helped with the decorations, but there’s a good chance it will air again soon.
It may seem absurd to praise someone for wearing an expensive dress again, or to see it as something different from normal behavior, but that’s the point. Because for the last few administrations — and for a lot of people in the public eye, even if it’s just the eye of Instagram — the push to promote new stuff has been an accepted part of the job. It’s extremely rare to see a celebrity wearing the same thing twice (most don’t even want to wear a dress once it hits the store); such was the case for Michelle Obama and Melania Trump during their time as first ladies.
Like her, Dr. Biden that decoration – of her home, of her person – is a tool at her disposal, but unlike them, she uses it to normalize what is an abnormal role anyway. Just like she uses tinsel and turtle doves. They are secular expressions of the “faith, family and friendship” described in the welcome letter of the 2021 White House memorial guide: everyday examples of the things – sometimes as simple as favorite shirt dresses and poinsettias – that “unite us”.