Come Jan. 20, for the first time in American history, there will be a woman at the top of the executive branch: Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Considering vice presidential fashion-following hasn’t exactly been a thing in the 232 male-dominated years hence, some have called into question whether Harris’ clothing should be commented on at all.
Women in particular are looking to her as a figure of strength during a time when democracy is more fragile than ever, and as such her supporters are fiercely protective of her image.
The February Vogue cover image of Harris that surfaced online over the weekend, featuring her dressed informally in a black suit, T-shirt and Converse sneakers against a pink fabric backdrop emblematic of her Howard University sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, was so maligned for whitewashing and undermining her authority that Condé Nast released the second “Madam Vice President” digital cover featuring a closer-cropped image of her wearing a pale blue suit by Michael Kors.
She dressed and styled herself for the Tyler Mitchell-lensed shoot, according to a spokesperson for the magazine, and the images were meant to convey “her authentic/approachable nature — which we feel is one of the hallmarks of the Biden/Harris administration” while nodding to the seriousness of the moment with the second image.
It’s notable that Vogue wasted no time putting Harris on the cover after four years of ignoring first lady Melania Trump. But there’s no glossing over the publication’s role in helping to spin the Trump fairy tale from the start, by featuring her on the February 2005 cover with the headline, “Donald Trump’s new bride: the ring, the dress, the wedding, the jet, the party.” It’s also interesting that the magazine is spotlighting Harris first, rather than incoming first lady Jill Biden.
While it is certainly a fraught subject, over the last few months Harris’ style has become a source of quiet fascination, if not a boon to business just yet.
Politically outspoken Hollywood stylist Karla Welch, whose clients include Justin Bieber, Tracee Ellis Ross, Elisabeth Moss and Bay Area-based Levi’s, is rumored to be working with Harris on her wardrobe, but did not respond to an inquiry about it.
The relationship makes sense, though, since Welch is friends with Meena Harris. The politician’s fashion-loving niece is the founder of the Phenomenal Woman political action campaign and clothing brand, which she told me in August she hopes will grow into “the Nike for good.”
Designers who have dressed the vice president-elect, including Joseph Altuzarra, whose plum-colored suit she wore Aug. 19 to accept the nomination, and Carolina Herrera’s Wes Gordon, who made the suffragette white pantsuit Harris wore to the Nov. 7 drive-in Biden victory rally as a symbol of her historic achievement on the shoulders of so many other women, also declined comment.
Perhaps they fear queering the relationship, or offending women who don’t think we should be going there. Or maybe the VP-to-be has asked them not to talk about her clothes?
Harris’ aversion to the fashion topic during the campaign (aside from a sneaker feature for Complex) has largely kept the focus on her message, even if it hasn’t kept sexism at bay. During the vice presidential debate, Google searches for “Kamala Harris nude” and “Kamala Harris bikini” spiked.
But from my point of view, Harris is well positioned to be a fashion icon for today because she is a woman, a woman of color, who is accomplished. Unlike the sex tape-, reality show- and Instagram-famous that have been pop culture idols for so long, she worked for and achieved power and fame through public service. So why shouldn’t women be curious about her as a leader, want to emulate her, and maybe even dress like her, pantsuit, Irene Neuwirth pearls, Converse and all?
In recent years, female politicians — including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (diplomacy through pins), late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (dissent through collars) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (public health modeling through fun face masks, even in the aftermath of an attempted coup) — have used fashion as a tool, opening the door for Harris to do so if she chooses and giving permission to fashion watchers to pay attention.
A handful of blogs and Instagram closet accounts have already cropped up to chart Harris’ attire. Those who keep careful tabs on how many times she rewears looks (sometimes dozens), and how her wardrobe has been skewing more high-end American — and colorful — since August, when she presumably started working with Welch, understand the implications.
“It started with her as a person,” said Vittoria Vignone, a New York City-based museum associate who launched Kamala’s Closet in August 2020. “I was fascinated by her policies, and that she was a child of immigrants. I’m a child of immigrants. As a woman, I pay attention to the way she presents herself.…I liked her first then wanted to know about the great coat she was wearing.”
Vignone recently turned her Instagram account into a website, with links to shop Harris’ wardrobe items she has hunted and found. (Indeed, the mystery and the sport of trying to identify them has added to the fascination.) A post this week highlights a custom apple green Herrera coat Harris wore to pick up takeout at a Washington, D.C., restaurant, a style inspired by one of the brand’s pre-fall 2021 coats, which suggests the house Carolina built could be in the running for creating her looks for the virtual inauguration ceremony. (Though it would be an incredible opportunity to highlight a Black designer.)
Vignone already sees Harris’ influence resonating. “My sister, who has never worn a blazer in her life, said, ‘I have to buy a blazer, she’s selling me on blazers,'” she said.
In September 2020, Lansing, Mich.-based writer Susan Kelley launched WhatKamalaWore, following her royal style websites WhatKateWore, WhatKatesKidsWore and WhatMeghanWore.
“As someone who grew up in the time of Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm, and remembers the patronizing tone of articles about them, it’s something I questioned and still do,” Kelley said, noting that unlike Kamala’s camp, Kensington Palace routinely communicates about and invites coverage of royal style. “But in this pivotal time, she is a fascinating figure. She uses fashion to amplify her message, but in no way does it diminish her.”
In the spirit of equality, “I thought about doing a tab on the site on what [Harris’ husband] Doug Emhoff has worn, and if I could clone myself, I would absolutely write about Joe Biden’s ties and critter socks,” said Kelley. “I’m a freak for vintage ties, and it would be terrific if the industry could get a boost.” (The President-elect’s pocket squares and Ray-Bans have also gotten media attention.)
While WhatKateWore has generated more than 13 million page views since its inception in 2011, and affiliate revenue from brands including Links of London and Cornelia James, WhatKamalaWore is nothing near that yet, Kelley said, adding that the site is in its nascent stage.
“Kamala has a massive wardrobe of black and navy pantsuits and pussy bow blouses…Manolo Blahniks, Timberland boots and Converse, a Chanel tote bag,” she said of her detective work to populate the site. “Some pieces, she’s been wearing for 15 years, which speaks to the dynamic of reusing and the need to be wiser about resources.”
Already, there’s more to her courtroom-appropriate style than meets the eye.
“She makes an effort to incorporate where she is and what she’s doing,” Vignone said of Harris’ understanding of fashion and potential to use it. “Her bracelet stack has a lotus bangle, and her name in Sanskrit means ‘lotus.’ Even the way the pearls represent her HBC sorority. And there is something great about Chucks, everyone can have them. You can make them personal…Her choices seem deliberate.”
While the first female vice president’s fashion is new territory, the symbolic power of first lady fashion stretches all the way back to Martha Washington, who was encouraged to wear homespun instead of British clothing in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, according to biographer Helen Bryan. (There is no official requirement that first ladies wear American-made.)
It will be interesting to see how Jill Biden defines her role stylishly speaking during another time of suffering on so many fronts. She could go the “woman of the people” route with plainer, more affordable clothes, in line with her decision to keep working as a teacher while in the White House, and in contrast to Melania Trump’s more ornamental image. Or she could aim to lift up the American people — and American fashion — by continuing to wear more aspirational clothing by past favorites Oscar de la Renta and Gabriela Hearst.
Likely, it will be a combination of both — and nothing like the current first lady’s militaristic, killer-heeled, largely European-first “I Don’t Really Care, Do You?” approach, which didn’t have much, if any, impact on trends or sales.
“I hope someone champions her, too,” said Kamala’s Closet creator Vignone of Biden. “I think these women are taken seriously enough to not mind when they get the spotlight for what they’re wearing.”