Senator Kamala Harris made history many times over when it was announced today that she would be Joe Biden’s running mate. She is the first Black woman, and the first Indian-American woman, to be a Vice Presidential candidate. Unbelievably, she’s only the second female Democrat who has been up for the job—in the span of almost 40 years, at that. Harris, who is from California, follows in the footsteps of New Yorker Geraldine Ferraro, who was on the ticket with Walter Mondale in 1984.
Even before Harris was revealed as Biden’s pick, press coverage of his search had already been deemed sexist by some. Washington’s double standards take many forms; one of them is its dress code. Suits for men and women are the norm; sartorial self-expression is discouraged. Fashion, long considered an expression of feminine frivolity, remains an f-word. When women in Washington carve out a style or uniform it’s news. Jacqueline Kennedy’s use of fashion as diplomacy is well documented, as is Michelle Obama’s support of American designers. Moreover, the media seemed positively fascinated by Dr. Deborah Birx’s scarves, Madeleine Albright’s brooches, and Barbara Bush’s pearls.
Why, in 2020, should it be a surprise that a woman can have style and substance? Talking about a female candidate’s style should not be reductive or diminish her other accomplishments. Meaning and symbolism can be expressed through clothing. Ferraro accepted her nomination in a white dress, which was read as a nod to the suffragette movement (it was a hue also favored by Hillary Clinton). Passed in 1920, the 19th Amendment nominally gave women the right to vote, though women of color were often prohibited from exercising that right.
Harris’s #fearless hashtag applies more to her political approach and policies than her style, but she does have certain signatures. A look back at her 1986 Howard University graduation photo shows her sporting pearls, an accessory that she still favors today. While on the campaign trail and at public events Harris sported an impressive collection of Converse sneakers, ranging from classic All Stars to platform versions. The Vice Presidential candidate is a woman willing to do the leg work to propel positive change. In fashion-speak, Harris knows how to work a relatable high/low mix. The message? That Harris is not only of the people, but for them.Kamala Harris in New Hampshire, 2019. Photo: Nancy Lane / MediaNews Group / Boston Herald via Getty Images