This weekend, Vogue tweeted two images of its February cover: Kamala Harris, photographed by Tyler Mitchell. The first woman of color vice-president-elect shot by the poster child for the New Black Vanguard had the makings of a historic cover. Instead, it served as a reminder that when you’re a woman and also a politician, your clothing is always political. Yes, even down to the Chucks.
Vice President-elect @KamalaHarris is our February cover star!
Making history was the first step. Now Harris has an even more monumental task: to help heal a fractured America—and lead it out of crisis. Read the full profile: https://t.co/W5BQPTH7AU pic.twitter.com/OCFvVqTlOk
— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) January 10, 2021
Over the last year, Vogue has come under fire for its visual treatment of Black cover stars, such as Cardi B to American gymnast, Simone Biles. So, when Harris’s complexion appeared to be lightened due to the shoot’s lightening, it was called out immediately. “Kamala Harris is about as light-skinned as women of color come and Vogue still fucked up her lighting,” one observer wrote. This, alongside rumors that Anna Wintour’s team had abandoned the agreed-upon shot for the print cover, reinforced the view that the publication had “robbed Harris of her roses.”
Perhaps the loudest criticism of all was that the cover was “overly familiar” and failed to reflect the historic importance of her appointment. But that was kinda the whole point. It was precisely her “for the people” campaign message here that she was trying to reiterate by donning a blazer designed by her friend, Donald Deal, black pants, and the Converse sneakers that became her signature shoe in the lead-up to the election.
Her fit was (as Vogue itself described in a piece about her style published in November) “subtly smart, comfortable clothes that semaphore a woman getting stuff done” while speaking plainly about the difficult challenge ahead. This cover is consistent with her style and messaging on the campaign trail — a no-nonsense, technocrat who will help to facilitate a smooth transition to a “new America.” After the garish visual language of the previous administration, the familiarity of the shoot was as much a political decision as it was aesthetic.
“The pic itself isn’t terrible as a pic. It’s just far, far below the standards of Vogue,” notes LGBTQ activist Charlotte Clymer. However, if Vogue had put Harris in a ballgown shot by Annie Leibovitz rather than her in her signature Chucks by Tyler Mitchell, the response would, arguably, be much worse. Amid a global pandemic, rising inequality, and a literal coup, a glamorous cover that many feel Harris deserved would have read as a little “let them eat cake.” It would put her on a plate for her political adversaries to eat up.
Let us not forget the backlash to AOC’s Vanity Fair cover last year. It was a reminder of the repercussion women politicians face when they wear luxury garments — even when they are just on loan. “The clothes are estimated to cost $14,000,” noted one political commentator. “So happy that AOC is upholding the long-established hypocritical tradition of Socialists who believe Socialism is for poor while they enjoy the fruits of Capitalism.”
There are a lot of takes to unpack when it comes to talking about politicians and their clothes but in short: Clothing is political, whether that’s Biden merch or Cori Bush thrifting or women wearing all-white as a hat tip to the suffragettes. When you are a woman, particularly a woman of color, and you are also a politician, what you wear is always a statement. And whether you think this is sad or not, that is a fact.
And the outcome of that fact takes shape in discussions like we’ve seen on Twitter this week. In conversations that circulate around whether one must forfeit style for political potency or vice versa, all while being expected to communicate authenticity and incorruptibility. And on that note, ironically, while everyone is busy tying themselves up in knots over the politics of Harris’ chucks, has anyone actually read her interview?
Didn’t think so.