I have tried for the life of me to find a problem with Vogue magazine’s controversial February cover of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Harris, 56, is wearing a textured blazer by her friend and designer, Donald Deal. The jacket is paired with ankle-length pencil trousers and on her feet are her signature black and white Converse sneakers. Her blow out is a basic bob. And in a nod to her membership in the esteemed Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority, she’s standing on a salmon pink and apple green backdrop.
Admittedly this cover — photographed by Tyler Mitchell, the first Black photographer to shoot a cover for Vogue in 2018 — isn’t the whimsical, picturesque image we’ve come to expect from America’s fashion bible. But then again, these are neither whimsical nor picturesque times. The coronavirus era does not lend itself to a ballroom background with diamond-encrusted chandeliers or extravagant, jewel-toned Carolina Herrera gowns.
Yet social media — including my diverse group of Facebook friends — slaughtered the photo. Many quoted activist and writer Charlotte Clymer, who tweeted Mitchell’s image was akin to “homework finished the morning it’s due. Disrespectful.” “Vogue tried to play her,” wrote one girlfriend. “Vogue made the choice to diminish Kamala Harris by making her look every-day ordinary,” posted another.
If it’s true that Harris’ camp was under the impression that a photo of the vice president-elect in a baby blue Michael Kors suit was the agreed upon cover image as reported by Yashir Ali on Sunday on Twitter, I see why the Harris camp would be perturbed, to say the least. A deal is a deal. That’s between Harris and the magazine.
But I wonder if the reactions to Harris’ photo were more about who we want Harris to be rather than who she is and the reality of the times we are actually in: a time when fashion is on the back burner for pretty much all of us. By demanding the first woman, the first Black woman, the first South Asian American woman to hold the job as vice president be presented as dolled up and perfectly coiffed, whose definition of glamour are we upholding? Whose idea of what an accomplished woman looks like are we valuing?
Think about it: American glamour came into its own in the 1930s and peaked through the 1950s. That was a time when women derived their stature from their husbands. We weren’t career driven. Like it or not, our idea of how a woman should look and act takes most of its cues from these decades. Today, women have moved far beyond white gloves, sweetheart necklines, pearls, princess silhouettes, and pillbox hats. Yet we still think that an accomplished women should be put on that unattainable fashion pedestal, girdles and all.
In 2021, glamour should be about women getting the job done. Harris is not a 1950s housewife, nor is she a 1950s AKA. Harris is a former San Francisco district attorney who campaigned like hell, beat out the naysayers, and is on the verge of becoming vice president of the United States. She’s done what no woman before has done. That in itself makes her anything but ordinary. That has nothing to do with her clothes.
At this point in American history, we shouldn’t need to see the vice president looking prim and proper or untouchable in a ball gown or designer business suit costing thousands of dollars. That is the epitome of tone deaf. A pandemic is raging. Our economy is in turmoil. We are in unsettled and divided times and it feels like our nation is on the brink of a civil war. The president is facing his second impeachment charge, this one for inciting last week’s riots at the Capitol.
Our world — like many of you complained about the picture — is way out of focus. And an Armani suit and pearls won’t make it any clearer.
Let’s be frank, I get why we are quick to jump on Vogue. Under the leadership of industry doyenne Anna Wintour, the glossy has not been an advocate for Black women or Black beauty. The covers of former First Lady Michelle Obama were stellar, but too often Black women have appeared looking either too light — as in yes, Harris does look whitewashed in this photo — or too ashen. And when the makeup and lighting is on point, the images have stripped us of our femininity like they did in the cases of Simone Biles and Viola Davis. Vogue has a long way to go when it comes proving it cares about authentic Black beauty.
But I do know that if fashion is going to survive, it has to do a better job showing women who we really are, not who we really want them to be: superhuman, always graceful, always poised, always happy to walk in shoes that hurt our feet.
The reason why fashion is slow to celebrate our everyday glamour — when we are truly standing in the power of sisterhood — is because we pooh-pooh on it. When fashion gives us the familiarity we crave, we throw it back as not good enough. When it dares to show women as vulnerable or approachable, we demand statuesque and take-no-shots minimalism. We want fashion to distract us, feed our ego, and show us our version of the truth.
That’s not fair to us and it’s not fair to fashion.
Eventually pomp and circumstance will be relevant again. One day the pandemic will be over and the mess of this country will be cleaned up. And if Harris chooses, maybe we get a glimpse of her on the cover of another fashion magazine in a stunning gown. Maybe she one day will attend her own inaugural ball as president.