How do you dress to declare fake victory? How do you convey the image of coming out on top when the top itself is shrouded in clouds and fog?
In the small hours of Wednesday morning, as news organizations warned that it could be days before the election results were known, President Donald J. Trump walked onto a makeshift stage in the East Room of the White House for his moment in the spotlight and announced, essentially, that, as far as he was concerned, it looked like they had won, and they didn’t understand why vote counting was still going on. He did so by stripping down some of his usual stagecraft, turning what might have been a coronation extravaganza into something that looked a lot more like a war room.
Against what seems like the now requisite army of American flags — not even one full row, but two — he arrived with his wife, Melania, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen.
They were preceded by the flotilla of Trump children, who took their places at the front of the audience. They almost all went dark: Ivanka wore a black double-breasted pantsuit; Kimberly Guilfoyle, black capri pants and a top; Lara Trump, a navy pantsuit. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, wore a black dress. The only punctuation marks were Tiffany, who wore a Republican red pantsuit, and Don Jr., who was in bright blue, to match the flags.
The first lady, who earlier on Tuesday had gone to cast her vote in Palm Beach wearing a sleeveless Gucci chain-print silk dress, had also changed into her sartorial security blanket: a black no-nonsense Dolce & Gabbana pantsuit, with a crisp white shirt (the same kind of look she had worn for her official portrait). Mrs. Pence also wore black. The president wore his usual dark suit. So did the vice president. Mr. Trump’s tie was blue; Mr. Pence’s red.
Viewed as a whole, through the screen, the picture was business as usual. It was startling to remember the asymmetric white jumpsuit with ruffle Mrs. Trump had worn on the same night four years ago, and the little blue-sky dresses Ivanka and Tiffany had chosen as they took their places flanking their father after his surprise victory.
That had been a scene of somewhat shellshocked brightness, and not-quite coordination. This was more like a gold-chandeliered, stars and stripes bunker. It was accessorized with the implicit suggestion: We’re not going anywhere. We’re hunkering down and digging in. Take this thing to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
Black is a complicated political color, with its associations of elitism and funerals, doom and threat. It tends to be avoided by family members whose role it is to show the softer, human side of a candidate or leader; to surround him (or her), literally, in a hazy glow. But the creeping darkness mirrored the mood of the country and President Trump’s own dark accusations: of voter fraud and election thievery.
It’s a battle, no question. Neither side is denying that one. Monday night, in her final rally in Philadelphia, Kamala Harris, Mr. Biden’s running mate, wore a heavy steel-toned military greatcoat as protection against the elements, even as she exhorted voters with a big smile. (It was from MaxMara, the brand that made Nancy Pelosi’s famous burnt orange flame-throwing coat, which may or may not have been a coincidence.) Yet Jill Biden, standing with her husband as he addressed his supporters just after midnight on Wednesday morning — outdoors, against a mere sprinkling of flags, just a gesture to the idea of props — wore a rose-colored swing coat: a light spot in the darkness.
Also a face mask, which has become a symbol of distinction between the two sides. Mr. Biden himself, smiling and radiating positivity and the belief it would all be OK, didn’t bother with a coat at all, even though they were outside.
That’s an old presidential tradition, hearkening back to Eisenhower, who shed his coat at his second inauguration to stand unshielded (at least by wool) in front of the world. Kennedy did the same, as did almost every President after him, until Obama. It’s a little visual sleight of hand, a nod to old traditions and stereotypes of virility and strength and a certain internal heat. That guy doesn’t need a coat: He makes his own warmth.
Certainly, Mr. Biden has tried. Whether it catches fire as the last votes are counted, or is doused by the cold water of this divided country, remains to be seen.