It was a largely red, white and blue evening capped off by a delicate necklace with four letters strung out on a thin gold chain, like four bated breaths: V-O-T-E.
The first night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention on Monday may have taken its unofficial dress code cues (at least for many of the marquee speakers) from the theme of a return to first principles — “We the people,” “United” — as reflected in primary colors. But it was the necklace, worn by Michelle Obama for her closing keynote, that symbolized the new, remote reality of the moment, and its urgency.
It made a virtue of a recorded speech. It beckoned you in, emphasizing the close-up, the intimate nature of her address, calling attention to the details. It wasn’t bombastic, or made to be seen in a giant convention center. It was personal, as was her statement. It underscored her words — spelled out the point, literally, so no one could miss it — as she spoke powerfully and emotionally of the need to act on empathy, to alter the course of history for the better. To vote, even if you were one of those who had not voted before. It reflected just how much every element of such events can matter, and be used to underscore a point, and leave a lasting impression.
Before she had finished speaking, the necklace was trending on Twitter. Footwear News called it “the must-have accessory of 2020.” Viewers wanted to know where they could get one of their own, as a banner of commitment. If you wear it, they will vote? Maybe.
Is it superficial to focus on such a thing, given the topics that surrounded it: racial justice, social justice, economic justice, environmental justice? Perhaps.
But it is such images that linger, just as it is the excerpts from the longer speeches — “He cannot meet this moment”; “It is what it is” (both Michelle Obama); “Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Trump golfs” (Sen. Bernie Sanders) — that echo afterward. A reminder of the content that came before, and potentially an amplifier.
Obama — along with her longtime stylist, Meredith Koop, who was instrumental in planning the outfit — has known this since her time in the White House. In her autobiography, “Becoming,” Obama wrote of the attention to what she wore: “I tried to reframe it as an opportunity to learn, to use what power I could find inside a situation.” If people were going to look, let them have something meaningful to take away. If she was going to step back into the spotlight, she was going to make every aspect of it matter.
The necklace had been custom-ordered through ByChari, an independent, Black-owned, female-led jewelry business founded by Chari Cuthbert, born in Jamaica and now based in Los Angeles, who also created Obama’s large hoop earrings. Beneath them she wore a simple bronze silk shirt from Nanushka, another female-founded independent brand and one of the newer names at New York Fashion Week, all of which have been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The choices were not just about style, but about the way every decision can address the wider crises we face. Even if in the smallest way.
Along with her decision to speak sitting in what looked like a family room, complete with blurred personal photos and a Biden sign in the background, the understated shirt and accessories also served as a visual differentiator between the role that the former first lady now plays as a sort of cultural figurehead — part celebrity, part elder stateswoman — and the politicians who came before.
As for those politicians, they were united in their suiting and coordinated with the flags that were, for many of them, their backdrop of choice. No matter where they were in the country. (The civilian speakers, beamed in from their homes via video to share their own experiences in interludes of raw conversation, were distinguished by their own, unadorned wardrobes.)
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, for example, stood at a podium in bright red shirt and navy leather blazer, the latter serving as a tough outer shell as she called out President Donald Trump for describing her as “that woman from Michigan.” Then there was Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, wearing a bright, sky-blue tie in his signature coronavirus briefing room, taking on the federal approach to the virus. (Also in blue ties: Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama and Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana.) There was Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, in a true blue jacket, calling for unity and crossing the river, and Sanders of Vermont, with not a single hair unaligned, in blue on blue as he wholeheartedly endorsed Joe Biden.
And although Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada eschewed the flags for the kitchen, she did so in a bright red suit jacket and black shell. Even the former Ohio governor, John Kasich, part of the Republicans-for-Biden contingent, wore a blue checked shirt as he stood at a crossroads to talk about America at its crossroads.
For anyone who needed that point spelled out.