With a violent insurrection, a second impeachment of the outgoing president and warnings of possible terrorism across the country in coming days, fashion is the last thing on the collective mindset.
And yet, chatter of Kamala Harris’s “Vogue” cover continued to reverberate throughout social media and the fashion industry over the past week. The photo shoot, image selection and response seemed to highlight tough spot that the fashion and editorial worlds find themselves in when it comes to portraying women in office — and what they wear.
There’s no doubt that whatever Harris wore on the cover would be scrutinized (and what she did wear, Donald Deal jacket, skinny jeans and now-signature Converse All-Stars, was all her own, as the vice-president-elect opted out of the custom of borrowing designer clothing for a photo shoot). For any woman in the public spotlight, wardrobe inevitably becomes a focal point, a glaring remnant of the reality of sexism that continues in spite of any economic or social progress women are making today.
By now, outrage over the cover has given way to some industry introspection. (Vogue did not issue an apology of the cover, which reportedly surprised the Harris team. It also revealed another digital cover, showing her in a powder blue blazer, arms folded in a pose more recognizable of a public official.) But as the presidential inauguration inches closer, the public scrutiny over Harris’s wardrobe choices is only just beginning. Regardless of how the vice-president-to-be chooses to interact with fashion, it will have historic and influential meaning.
It’s no secret that there is a grand tradition of First Lady fashion in the U.S. From Martha Washington to Melania Trump, every gown, pump and strand of pearls has been analyzed through history — and through the years, these women have leaned into the role, often using the platform as an opportunity to elevate American fashion designers and the country’s fashion industry as a whole. It’s through these traditions, after all, that women like Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama have become some of the most powerful and recognizable fashion figures of all time. One could even argue that American fashion would be next to nothing without them.
Harris is, of course, not the next First Lady but an elected official, and the first woman (and person of color) to soon hold a position of power as high as the vice presidency of the United States. We should expect that how she approaches fashion will be different from the style strategy of Jill Biden.
Biden has already started to assume the mantle of First Lady fashion, donning designers like Gabriela Hearst, Brandon Maxwell and Oscar de la Renta, all of which are reportedly in the running for her Inauguration Day look, along with designers Wes Gordon at Carolina Herrera, Donald Deal, Christian Siriano, Prabal Gurung and Laquan Smith.
But as a woman, a person of color and someone in a position of power, Harris is in the unique position to make a singular, indelible mark on fashion, if she chooses to use it. She already has: in the navy blue suit she matched to Joe Biden’s upon her vice presidential nomination, and in her already-signature power pearl necklaces (a nod to her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority; they have long symbolized good luck, hidden knowledge, wisdom and wealth).
Harris’s most powerful symbols in fashion, though, have come from her footwear. Her trademark Converse All-Stars, which she started to wear in public while on the campaign trail for her own presidential bid in 2019, have transmitted messages of egalitarianism, of modernity and equality for women, of youth culture, and an of-the-people mentality. They also look a lot cooler than a pair of kitten heels or ballet flats. In August, when Harris surveyed fire damage in California, her Timberland boots projected both a literal and figurative willingness to dig in and get her hands dirty.
Through her shoes, Harris can shine a bright light on the footwear industry, especially in the American market. Imagine Harris in a meeting on climate accountability, wearing a pair of sustainable, recycled Allbirds, or in a pair of limited edition Nikes whose proceeds go towards social justice nonprofits. It’s entirely possible that we could see Harris meeting with members of the medical community in vaccination efforts, wearing the same pair of Crocs clogs that the brand has gifted healthcare workers across the country.
But Harris’s focus on American names could also extend beyond shoes — and it would help prop up the industry, whose economy and clout have both been reduced by manufacturing shifts, over-saturation, European elitism and finally the pandemic. She could choose to focus on small businesses and independently-owned fashion brands, as she did when she toured footwear entrepreneur James Whitner’s Social Status shop in North Carolina while on the campaign trail in October.
The vice-president-elect might also focus on wearing and elevating Black designers and other minority-owned brands. As 2020’s social justice movements have given way to a golden era of Black fashion and creativity, seeing the vice president in these designers would be the ultimate statement of visibility, perseverance and power.
Even if Harris chooses not to explore fashion and the symbolism it offers through its colors, textures, silhouettes and accoutrements, her avoidance would be its own fashion statement. A sober, utilitarian and genderless uniform of dark suits and no frills would convey its own symbolism of power and equality.
The most powerful part of it all? The choice is entirely up to the future Madame Vice President.