Kamala Harris, Plain and Fancy

Vogue, via the Washington Post

By now you have probably heard about the dust up over Vogue’s February issue featuring Kamala Harris on the cover. According to Vogue, both photos, shot by African American photographer Tyler Mitchell, were approved for publication.  The more casual look won out. However, Harris’s team insists that they voiced a preference for the photo on the left, where Harris appears in the kind of power suit beloved by women in high places.

What’s the difference? In the photo on the right, we see Harris dressed as she often was on the campaign trail.  Although she still wears one of her signature necklaces and a fitted jacket, the rest of the look is casual.  She combines dressed up elements with short skinny jeans and Converse sneakers, an essential element of her campaign uniform.  The side bar proclaims: “By the People, For the People. The United States of Fashion.”  This implies that the magazine intends to use Harris as an example of the new trends in casual fashion brought about in part by the pandemic.  The background colors, pink and green, are those of her college sorority.

The photo on the left is a more traditional portrayal of a powerful woman.  Harris still wears a jacket, a white shirt, and a necklace.  In this case, though, the power suit, the position of her arms, and the gold background convey authority.  What’s new here is not the fashion but the fact that a woman of color is in a position of authority.  The subtitle conveys this as well.  Kamala Harris represents the New America. What is new is her gender and her color.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour defends the magazine’s choice, saying that the more informal photo makes Harris more approachable.  Critics like the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah claim it is disrespectful. “[I]n a world where strong Black women are often maligned as intimidating and unfeminine, the image Vogue chose reduced Harris just as she is taking her rightful place at the heights of American power.”

What’s more important about Harris, her fashion sense or her political authority?  If Vogue wanted to show how Harris embodies current trends, then the editors picked the right photo.  However, if they wanted to reinforce her unique historical role as the first female Vice President of the nation, they made the wrong choice. I stand with the critics on this one. The new administration, and Harris in particular, need all the help they can get–even from a fashion magazine.

What’s your view?

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8 Responses to Kamala Harris, Plain and Fancy

  1. Pal K says:

    I like both of them although on a personal level, given I have interacted with some elected women, I prefer the sneaker version because it reminds me just how hard our electeds work (most of them)
    However, at this juncture in time, the blue suit/gold background sends a better message to a larger population.
    The kind who have some hidden or not do hidden preconceived notions of capable.
    (51% of Americans believe women have to work harder to prove themselves worthy of elected office; In March 2020, 20% of Americans did not believe a woman could be elected president; Between 13% and 16% of Americans believe that a man should be president)

  2. Fabrickated says:

    I just think she looks beautiful in the light grey suit rather than boring black.

  3. Katrina B says:

    I guess I’m missing all these critical nuances because I don’t care which one is on the cover. Firstly, this is Vogue magazine, not Kamala Harris magazine, so Vogue gets to pick the cover. Secondly, the fact that she is the Vice President is one of the best things that has happened in my short piece of history. She will be on the covers of thousands of magazines wearing thousands of outfits. She will wear suits. She will wear sneakers. It won’t matter – her constant presence and her visible accomplishments will normalize women and African Americans in office. (Why this country still has trouble with with these concepts is beyond me.) Finally, Joe Biden will also be on magazine covers. Will we argue about how each magazine should have selected another of Joe’s outfits for each cover?

    • JS says:

      Apparently, Vogue does reach an agreement with certain high-profile subjects about the cover image that will be used. Harris’s team thought the blue jacket photo would be on the cover.

      Vogue is not just another magazine. It is the most influential women’s magazine in the world. Its choice of image matters.

      The clothing of male politicians is not scrutinized to the same extent as that of women. It’s not fair but that’s where we are. Moreover, in the world of politics, Biden is just another old white man. Harris, a Black and South Asian woman, is groundbreaking.

  4. JS says:

    I far prefer the blue suit. As an African American woman, I’m particularly sensitive to this. Why, when fashion magazines want to take a risk, do they take it only with Black women? For example, I have no problem with models of larger sizes, but why do I so often see that a company has photographed a string of thin, conventionally beautiful white and Asian models and included one fat, Black model? Blacks aren’t the only group that has overweight women. Eileen Fisher has featured an extremely androgynous Black model who literally looks like a boy. OK, some people like that look, not me. But where are the white and Asian models with 1/4″ hair, no makeup, who look like boys? Why are Black women always used as the experiment? Why do we still continue to be tokenized, even in the name of progressive movements?

    Back to Harris. Instead of giving her a standard, elegant, dignified portrait as was the case with other prominent women politicians or political spouses, they styled her like some kind of superannuated homegirl in sneakers. It’s no immunity that the photographer is a young Black man. He has neither taste nor judgment. I hated the scenes of Harris on the campaign trail bopping along. It seemed forced and heck, she’s almost 60 years old. I think the colors of her sorority are ugly and as a Black person who was not part of that Black Greek world, I don’t give a damn.

  5. Bob Moeller says:

    I wonder if the more casual photograph wasn’t intended to appeal to millennials for whom Converse are standard footwear (for women and men, my daughter [32] and many of her friends wear them). “Chucks,” as I knew them growing up eons ago, are also the shoe of choice for stage managers. My daughter was one for many years, wore Converse at her wedding as did the dozen or so other stage managers who were in attendance. I know I’m rambling but I guess I also think that Vice President Harris will have no trouble establishing her authority as she did as SF DA, and CA Attorney General and Senator, regardless of what she has on her feet.

  6. Abbey S says:

    Visually, the blue/gold pic appeals to me more because it puts her in focus. The Green/rose pic shows her standing too far back for a cover photograph and the black washes out the sneakers anyhow. Not sure that a sorority affiliation should matter after so many decades and somehow I find it reduces her achievements as an adult somewhat (although I am not American and don’t really get the Greek thing 🙂 ). If they wanted to show her sneakers or even make the sorority connection, that would have been perfect for the opening page of an article but not the cover. Anyhow, thrilled to have her be VP.

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