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I was reading a New Yorker article regarding Donald Trump's inauguration (A Dark Inaugural By Benjamin Wallace-Wells) and I came across this sentence at the very end:

Today, Melania Trump’s coat was pale blue and Michelle Obama’s was maroon, and that seemed to capture the day: patriotic, yes, but a few shades off.

What does "a few shades off" mean here? Is it pointing to the somber colors of their outfits or perhaps to the overcast, dark tone of Trump's message to the American public?

Checked the Internet but couldn't find an answer.  

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    It sounds like a reference to the colours of the American flag. Maroon and pale blue would be just a few shades off. – Christy Jan 25 '17 at 12:22
  • Few shades off - a little wrong. Not true patriotic color and since the color is not truly patriotic, then she is not a true patriot. Something like that. – Vladimir Markiev Jan 25 '17 at 12:23
  • It's both, he's employing metaphor. The national colors are red, white, and blue; people feeling patriotic fervor often display these colors, wear them brightly and proudly. Melania's coat was blue, but pale blue; Michelle's was red, but dark red (maroon). But suggestive or, but not identical to, those patriotic colors. They're a few shades (lighter or darker) off from "pure" or "true" patriotism. As was the rest of the day, if you're to believe the sentence, or the title of the work which included it. – Dan Bron Jan 25 '17 at 12:25
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    It's definition 4 here: b. A slight difference or variation; a nuance: shades of meaning. See Synonyms at nuance. c. A small amount; a trace: detected a shade of bitterness in her remarks. If you want to see allusions to the colours of the US flag or the "political spectrum", that's just a matter of interpretation which may or may not have been intended by the writer. To a first approximation it's just a cliched idiomatic metaphor. – FumbleFingers Jan 25 '17 at 13:42
  • @VladimirMarkiev I think my answer echoes your comment. Feel free to pull the dictionary definitions from my answer to form your own. If you do, ping me, and I'll delete mine. – Lawrence Jan 25 '17 at 13:58
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It's a play on words.

When talking about the colour of the clothes, the natural reading of "a few shades off" is to associate shades with colour and off with accuracy - that is, the clothes were not quite the correct colours to represent patriotism.

When using the same expression to describe the day, the following definitions come into play:

A shade —— (phrase) A little ——: ‘he was a shade hung-over’ ‘It was a shade less than the champions deserved.’ - ODO

Off adjective 1 [attributive] Characterized by performing or feeling worse than usual; unsatisfactory or inadequate: ‘even the greatest athletes have off days’ - ODO

The natural reading is then that the day seemed a little less satisfactory than the author would expect for an inauguration.

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In a comment, Dan Bron wrote:

It's both, he's employing metaphor. The national colors are red, white, and blue; people feeling patriotic fervor often display these colors, wear them brightly and proudly.

Melania's coat was blue, but pale blue; Michelle's was red, but dark red (maroon). Both suggestive of, but not identical to, those patriotic colors.

They're a few shades (lighter or darker) off from "pure" or "true" patriotism. As was the rest of the day, if you're to believe the sentence, or the title of the work which included it.

  • This explains the meaning in context well. – Tom22 Jan 25 '17 at 21:19
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"Today, Melania Trump’s coat was pale blue and Michelle Obama’s was maroon, and that seemed to capture the day: patriotic, yes, but a few shades off."

Two posters have already provided excellent answers. I only add small points for clarity.

There is no one shade of red or any color. There's dark red, bright red, deep red, and they have different names, like 'maroon' which one poster already concisely pointed to the author's meaning. Inauguration Day is considered a "Red, White, and Blue" day, like the 4th of July, where the American flag is prominently displayed. People often wear clothes or hats that show these exact colors on those days to show their patriotism.

What the author is doing is comparing and contrasting two different leaders. Barack Obama, a Democrat, with Donald Trump, a Republican. Not only both parties at odds, but also a President, who on numerous occasions, said there'd never be a Trump President. It was just laughable, as well as his wife, Michelle, who stated all hope for America would be gone with a Trump President. Likewise, Trump made many disparaging comments about Obama's "abysmal leadership" (his word, not mine)...but, the wives of these two men are simply their wives. It's their husbands leaving a political office, and another one taking it - that basically hate each other. Their respective parties also hate each other...but there they are together on stage...like some opposite shades opposing each other.

Michelle Obama is wearing dark red (maroon) - which isn't the shade of red in the stripes of the American Flag. Also, Melanie Trump is wearing blue, but light blue, also not the right shade of blue matching the blue color of the American flag.

The author is simply commenting the off shades of red and blue seem to adequately "capture the day" or represent how off shade and sour the Inauguration of Trump taking over leadership of the country from Obama is by showing in both Michelle and Melanie's off shaded blue and red coats.

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