alking about what politicians wear is contentious business, especially when those politicians are women. Hillary Clinton has her scarlet suits, Angela Merkel her boxy blazers. And, of course, there were Theresa May’s leopard print shoes. But, as is often the case with fashion, discussing this sort of thing has sometimes been viewed as distracting and superficial. Even when those choices carry social and political significance, critics inevitably argue that focusing on the way female politicians dress somehow undermines their political power. The irony is that it often does the exact opposite.
Never has this been more evident than with the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris. From the moment Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate in the US presidential election in August 2020 – making her the first woman and person of colour to take on the role – she has continued to make scrupulous sartorial choices that not only reflect her authority, but elevate it.
Consider her tailoring. Often when delivering key speeches, Harris would wear a sharp tailored suit. There were grey ones, navy blue ones, burgundy ones, even tartan ones. And all of them said something important about her position as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated arena. “Due to the history of the suit beginning in menswear, it always carried connotations of power,” says fashion historian Darnell-Jamal Lisby.
While menswear suits date back to the 1600s, the idea of women in suits was considered scandalous because it was viewed as a subversion of the rigid gender roles that were in place at the time. During the early 1900s, at the height of the fight for women’s emancipation, the tabloids mocked the suffragettes, portraying them as mannish women in suits – an affront to their husbands. When Coco Chanel later introduced her sportswear-inspired skirt suits in the mid-1920s at her eponymous French fashion label, they were revolutionary.
Suits also have a sartorial legacy when it comes to female politicians, explains fashion historian Lally Macbeth, particularly when, like Harris, they wear them with a pussy-bow blouse. “Margaret Thatcher employed the use of a pussy-bow blouse beneath her power suits as a way of harnessing both masculinity and femininity,” says MacBeth. “While Harris’s suits are more informally cut than Thatcher’s, it could be argued that she is employing the same technique.” The same could be said for Harris’s penchant for pearl necklaces, often chosen to match the colour of her suit.
The most memorable suit Harris has worn to date is perhaps the white, single-breasted Carolina Herrera design she chose to deliver her acceptance speech in November. Famously linked to the women’s suffrage movement, the colour white symbolises purity and freedom from oppression and has come to be a vestiary tool embraced by female leaders – see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s white suit on the cover of Vanity Fair. White suits were also famously worn by democratic congresswomen during the 2019 State of the Union address, which marked the centenary of women’s enfranchisement.
But with Harris, who used her acceptance speech to credit the women who came before her – “I stand on their shoulders” – the choice to wear white at that moment was even more notable. In 1968, when Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to US congress, she wore white. “It’s also a colour that represents renewal in Hindu culture,” notes Lisby. “Given this and the way that the colour white is historically associated with civil rights and early feminist protest, Harris’s white suit signalled the essence of intersectionality that we hope she will bring into the policies she champions in her role as vice president.”
It’s not just Harris’s formalwear that is important. In fact, many would argue that her casual looks are even more so given that she wore them on the campaign trail when she was meeting voters and trying to win them over. Harris was frequently photographed in a variation of the same ensemble, comprising a blazer, jeans, and a pair of Converse trainers. This is a fairly revolutionary combination when you consider the fact that neither trainers nor jeans are not permitted under the US Senate’s strict dress code.
“A more traditional campaign ensemble would be like one sported by Hillary Clinton in 2016, think a Jackie Kennedy-style dress and heels,” notes MacBeth. “Harris, however, had made a very shrewd decision by casting off this traditionally ‘feminine’ look in favour of something more relaxed.” Jeans and Converse trainers are also two of the most well-known aesthetic totems in American culture, representing both authenticity and integrity. “Jeans also have a particularly long association with manual labour and the working American man,” adds MacBeth.
Harris recently made headlines for sporting her signature look on the cover of American Vogue, on which she wore a black Donald Deal blazer and jeans with a pair of black Converse. Despite the casual look being something of a personal uniform for Harris, the cover polarised the internet, with many accusing the magazine of not putting its usual high-fashion spin on its cover star and interpreted Harris’s laid-back look as a sign of laziness on the part of the publisher.
“It was absolutely not our intention to in any way diminish the importance of the vice president-elect’s incredible victory,” said Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief, in response to the criticism. Wintour explained that, when it came down to a choice between the final cover and an image of Harris in a blue suit (which is the digital cover), the team decided that a “less formal” portrait would better reflect the moment and Harris’s “accessible and real” approach to politics. Now, however, the magazine appears to have done a U-turn, announcing this week that it would be releasing a new limited edition cover following Wednesday’s inauguration “in celebration of this historic moment”.
When you consider some of Harris’s other wardrobe choices, the Vogue cover wasn’t a massive contrast to the public image she has built in the last year. It was, after all, a Nike running kit that she was wearing in a video posted to her social media showing the moment she called Biden to congratulate him on their win. “Harris really represented the modern woman at that moment,” recalls Lisby. “Athleisure provides a space for consumers to move in their quotidian lives with great ease. Thus, at the moment, Harris represented how many of us are dressed in our daily lives and is, to support the messaging behind her campaign, essentially, ‘one of us’.”
Another one of Harris’s relatable looks came on Monday 18 January, when she joined volunteers at Martha’s Table community support centre to deliver healthy food to families in need. She was pictured wearing a mid-thigh length puffer jacket with her hair up and a pair of neutral earrings. “As with most mixed-race people, she showed her existence and presence in multiple worlds,” say fashion historian Dr Erica de Greef and gender researcher Shayna Goncalves. “She is a person who understands people. In her wardrobe, she has the same brands as all of us and now also occupies a world of academia, wealth, politics, and presidency. In all these variants of her as a person, she has chosen to wear what will enable her to get the work done.”
As the world prepares for her four-year term as vice president, Harris’s most iconic looks are undoubtedly yet to come. Her inauguration look, whatever it is, will go down in fashion history. Biden, meanwhile, has reportedly opted for all-American label Ralph Lauren for the occasion, with many suspecting that Harris will choose a female-fronted label. And while there will of course be other things to consider on the day besides what the soon-to-be president and vice president are wearing, their clothes will still be worthy of discussion. They always are.