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?