Please handle with care.
If there was ever a warning label for a piece on politicians and their fashion modus operandi, this should be it. Women, so often, bear the brunt of the 'fashion police,' - and disproportionately so. Michelle Obama, for instance, described how “unfair” it was she’d have to wear a new outfit for public events, while her husband could get away with recycling the same suit. Just last month actor and director Elizabeth Banks aired her frustrations in a sarcastic tweet, just before the vice presidential debate: “I hope Mike Pence smiles enough, is likeable, and doesn’t comes across as angry. Also OMG, like, what’s he gonna be wearing?”
The extent of Obama being called out for his sartorial choices during his presidency, was how dadcore his jeans were in 2009. “I’ve been unfairly maligned about my jeans,” the former POTUS responded, defending the look. “The truth is, generally, I look very sharp in jeans.” Though, it wasn’t long before brands (hi, Balenciaga) actually started their own riffs on the trend (for those that concede a trend is legitimised when sticking a “core” at the end of it).
And yet, to dismiss the power and provenance of political dress codes is like skipping the B-side of a record. You may think it’s of little importance, or ignore its presence entirely, but there are hidden truths to be found here; to help give a more emboldened understanding of the picture the artist - or, in this case, politician - wants to paint for its audience.
Take Liberal wunderkind, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who last week won her re-election bid for a seat in Congress. The fabric of her personal style is stitched together with messages of freedom, hope and community. In 2019, for instance, she wore an all-white suit for her congressional swearing-in ceremony. A symbol of silent protest. Of female solidarity to “honor the women who paved the path before me, and for all the women yet to come. From suffragettes to Shirley Chisholm [the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968 who also wore white to her ceremony], I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the mothers of the movement.”
Then, earlier this summer she gave cult New York-based fashion brand, Telfar, a shout out on her Instagram Stories: “Fun fact,” she wrote. “Telfar is now known as a globally celebrated designer, but did you know this Black, LGBTQ+ designer and founder got their start in LEFRAK CITY, QUEENS?” The brand’s tagline echoes Ocasio-Cortez's school of political uprising: “It's not for you — it's for everyone.”
Which brings us to Kamala Harris, the trailblazing prosecutor-turned-politician who made history this weekend as the first woman and first woman of colour elected US Vice President. It follows a series of career firsts: in 2011, she became the first woman, first African American and first Asian American to serve as attorney general for California. She’s been U.S. senator representing California since 2016; the second Black woman senator in history. In January 2019, she launched her own presidential campaign, promising to be a fighter “for the people.”
Harris’ visual signals are a manifestation of this mission statement. Her campaign uniform is a palette cleansing mix of navy, grey and black, yet her victory suit was white. Unlike say, Hillary Clinton’s collection of paintbox bright co-ords (so famous she anointed herself a "pantsuit aficionado”).
Comfort is key. Her footwear deftly practical, opting on many a public event to forgo heels, in favour of a pair of Converse high tops ("laced up and ready to win," she captioned one Instagram post in September).
There’s no huge strategy behind this either. Harris is a genuine fan of the iconic American footwear brand. Unearthing a 2018 interview with The Cut, she says she prefers to run through airports in her Converse sneakers: “I have a whole collection of Chuck Taylors. A black leather pair, a white pair, I have the kind that don’t lace, the kind that do lace, the kind I wear in the hot weather, the kind I wear in the cold weather, and the platform kind for when I’m wearing a pantsuit.”
Another time honoured, signature staple of Harris’? Her rotation of pearl necklaces, a fandom which dates back decades (just take a closer look at her – now widely shared – Howard University graduation photo in 1986).
This piece of jewellery is a significant nod to her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, founded in 1908, whilst studying political science and economics at Howard. AKA, the first Black Greek-letter sorority, which refers to their founding members as the “Twenty Pearls", because each new member is given a special badge decorated with 20 pearls upon initiation (alongside Harris, previous members of AKA include astronaut Mae Jemison, and authors Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.)
“Pearls represent refinement and wisdom,” said Glenda Glover, international president of Alpha Kappa Alpha told Vanity Fair. “We train young ladies to be leaders and to make sure they have the wisdom to lead,” she continues. “And that goes hand in hand with the true meaning of what Alpha Kappa Alpha is all about.”
So often we discuss power dressing as what it looks like - a tried-and-tested formula - rather than what it feels like. Though Kamala Harris is a prime example of the true essence of this phrase. It is both business and personal. It is relishing in our past. And racing ahead to a brighter, better, future.
Images | @kamalaharris