When both Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence walked out on the debate stage Wednesday night, it looked like they were attending a funeral.
Both vice presidential candidates wearing all black (save Pence with a red tie) felt right for the moment. After a week of tumult that included a chaotic presidential debate, President Trump’s positive COVID-19 result, an ensuring emergency hospital visit and bizarre, circus-like series of photo ops, was there any other choice? Harris and Pence alike seemed to pick up on the deadly serious nature of the moment, and perhaps even a sense of mourning for the country in a time of disarray.
All eyes have been on Harris’s campaign-trail wardrobe during the election season, a tendency that so often reveals an inherent kind of sexism that a woman politician can face in an election (and in public service, and more broadly, just in public).
Nevertheless, the senator and vice presidential candidate has utilized the bias to her advantage, carefully choosing garments — and footwear — to convey to the public the type of leader she proposes to be. Her closet full of unisex Converse sneakers transmits a relatable nature. Her Timberland boots, worn to survey California wildfires in September, were meant to offer up a roll-up-your-sleeves mentality. Both footwear options have a deeper meaning than just their face value, given that no other woman candidate of Harris’s level has dared to wear something other than a pump or kitten heel.
But for Wednesday’s debate, Harris knew that only a power suit and pump would do. Aside from the American flag pin and a modest version of her signature pearls, the vice presidential candidate kept things simple, with a tailored black suit and subtle matching camisole, plus a pair of black stiletto pumps that put her nearly at the same height of her opponent. The ensemble was the only fitting choice for a night of serious topics.
Many have extolled the benefits of wearing a high-heeled pump — the way it makes you stand differently, the confidence it brings to its wearer, the literal height it offers to level things. The U.S. may be extremely divided now, but the power of the pump still seems to be a bi-partisan stance, even as the footwear upholds traditional, and prohibitive, notions of a woman’s dress code.
For the most part, the shoes — and the outfit — worked for Harris, even while political pundits begin to parse out the moments of sexism that the debate brought; in the displays of hesitancy that a woman often feels in interrupting a man, in the body language a woman has to navigate in public. The debate only seemed to reinforce the footwear’s complicated symbolism.