What the controversy over Kamala Harris’s 'Vogue' cover tells us about fashion in politics
When Kamala Harris’s forthcoming Vogue cover was leaked online over the weekend, people thought it was a joke. The image shows Vice President-elect Harris standing, hands clasped and smiling, in front of a wall of luxurious-looking fabrics. A mossy damask lines the shot’s perimeter, while Harris is framed by a gleaming mass of pink silk that pools beneath her shoes. Harris’s shoes, her signature low-top Converse, define her casual styling—a dark blazer atop skinny pants and a plain white tee, finished with a double string of pearls.
The Internet called it washed out, weird, and unflattering. But, it was just a trollish edit—surely Vogue, known for its iron editorial hand, would never select such an awkward cover photo for a soon-to-be vice president. However, hours later when the magazine confirmed that this was indeed the cover of their February issue, public opinion shifted towards outrage—fashion critics and Instagram commenters alike called it disgraceful, disrespectful, and downright ugly. Rumors of sabotage emerged, suggesting Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour switched the cover last minute without informing Harris or photographer Tyler Mitchell.
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In reality, it’s unlikely that the cover is the result of any sort of editorial collusion (allegations of which Wintour denied this morning in a statement to The New York Times). Even if it is, the controversy that followed is typical for prominent women in American politics, whose fashion is treated like a symbolic code to be obsessively scrutinized for deeper meaning. The white pantsuit Harris wore to give her first speech as Vice President-elect in November was subject to similar public fixation. The all-white look was declared a deliberate homage to the Suffragettes and the suit itself was lauded as a self-aware step forward in power dressing. The pussy bow blouse Harris wore underneath got its own special treatment—it was deemed both a reference to Margaret Thatcher’s love for the style in her own public uniform, and a sly jab at Donald Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape.
Of course, visual language has always been an integral part of the game of politics—especially in the United States, where high-profile politicians tend to be subsumed into the spectacle of celebrity. But our takes on what women in power wear easily slides between analytical and downright conspiratorial. Take the criticism that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez received after appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair in October (also photographed by Tyler Mitchell). Conservative media outlets added up the cost of every clothing item AOC wore in the photoshoot and presented the total of $14,000 as evidence of her hypocrisy as a Democratic Socialist. The clothes were borrowed, but the point was that a woman cannot wear a pair of Loubotins or an expensive suit and still care about whether or not people have access to healthcare. At the end of day what our obsession with what a female politician wears reveals is not her taste or discretion or even ours, but our descent into post-literacy—we don’t want to take the time to read proposed policy, we want the outfits of policymakers to tell us what it’s all about.