I wasn’t surprised when Vice President-elect Kamala Harris valiantly took the stage in a stunning ivory pantsuit and pussy bow blouse Saturday night to claim her historic win.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kicked off the victorious women-in-white trend in 2016 on the night she accepted the Democratic nomination for president. The sartorial nod to the suffragettes, who in the early 1900s wore white in their fight for the vote, picked up in the last four years as Harris, along with her cohorts in Congress, wore white in unity.
So it was perfectly fitting that Harris — the first woman and the first woman of color to serve as our vice president — would choose a pearly-hued Carolina Herrera pantsuit to mark such a glorious evening.
“I’m thinking about the generations of women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment tonight,” Harris said Saturday night during her speech. “Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including Black women, who are too often overlooked but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.”
As I watched Harris on the campaign trail these last few months, it’s become apparent she chooses symbolism over style and, as a former California prosecutor, dresses more utilitarian than unique. The few times during the course of the campaign when fashion was raised, the focus was on the Converse sneakers and Timberland boots she paired with her pantsuits‚ which I thought was worth discussing: When was the last time we saw a vice presidential nominee rocking Chucks and Timbs?
And that’s where the conversation might end.
We’re in the middle of a pandemic, after all, and fashion just doesn’t matter that much. The days when style helped shape our aspirations are relics of our past lives. Harris’ practical approach to her wardrobe is even more evidence that our priorities have shifted.
And yet: Harris' ascendancy to vice president is an affirmation of feminine power.
American culture celebrates #girlpower with our clothes.
Harris is a Black American. She’s a South Indian American. She’s Caribbean. And women in these cultures celebrate their identity through their style. Sometimes that’s bold colors or flawless silk-pressed hair. It often includes manicured nails, popping heels, and stately headwraps.
She is also an esteemed member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., the oldest Black women’s Greek letter organization in the world. AKAs were founded in 1908 at Harris’ alma mater, Howard University. These sisters are passionate about community service, yes. But they rarely miss a fashion beat. That’s because for more than a century, they made sure their clothing demanded dignity, especially when Jim Crow was the law of the land.
An appreciation for fashion is in her DNA.
Inherent in Harris' vice presidential win should be freedom for women to enjoy fashion on their own terms. Harris is not the wife of a powerful person. She is the powerful person.
Does that mean we won’t take notice of what Harris and her husband — America’s first-ever second gentleman, Douglas Emhoff — wear to the inauguration or the ball? No. Every aspect of Harris’ historical swearing-in should be feted, and it’s OK that it includes fashion.
Because fashion does have meaning. Take the black floral Oscar de la Renta sheath Jill Biden donned Saturday night. The dark dress with its exquisite floral embroidery reflected the state of the country: subdued yet festive. And Joe Biden, who will be the oldest man to assume the presidency, appeared modern in his slim-cut black suit.
Looking at how we dress during some of America’s most historic moments, especially at presidential inaugurations, paints a picture of who we are. But because there is not much variation in basic menswear — unless we are talking about MSNBC numbers-cruncher Steve Kornacki’s pants — we end up talking about women. It’s our trends that change from moment to moment and year to year. And so it’s our trends that telegraph messages — of respect, or disrespect, or loyalty. This is why I can’t wait to see what Harris will wear to state dinners. What she wears will speak volumes.
And yet, we don’t want to be armchair fashionistas who focus on what Harris is donning more than what she’s doing.
Still, even if people can’t control their critiques, Madame Vice President’s hemlines, haute couture — or lack thereof — won’t be close to being the most interesting thing about her.