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The Origins—and Influence—of Vice President Kamala Harris’ Style

Fashion has likely been a less-than-pressing consideration for Vice President Kamala Harris, who along with President Joe Biden inherited the coronavirus crisis and simmering social tensions when they ascended to the White House last month. But that doesn’t mean the historic VP’s choices—and their influences—won’t continue to fall under the microscope of the fashion elite, political critics and the general public alike.

Surrounded by a field of flags instead of smiling faces, Harris became a beacon of change on Jan. 20—but no one could resist talking about her symbolic purple coat.

Dissecting Harris’ sensibility

The veep’s ankle-skimming coat was “very nice,” but offered “no fireworks,” Fashion Institute of Technology, professor Mark-Evan Blackman told Sourcing Journal of Harris’ inaugural attire. Instead, he said, the bright-yet-polished look “was a controlled ember, a smoldering fire.”

“And I think that’s how she defines herself,” he added. “There is substance there.”

Blackman says Harris’ sartorial sensibility is an outward expression of her innate self-assurance, cultivated through nearly two decades in the public eye—as a district attorney, attorney general of California, and as a senator. “That confidence has evolved into a very contemporary, albeit understated, approach to fashion,” he said.

When it comes to Harris’ choices, “the colors are solid, the lines are crisp, and yet at the end of most things, there’s a little punctuation,” whether it appears as a design detail or an unexpected hue, he added. The VP also often rocks a stiletto heel of a modest height with her pantsuits and dresses—a nod to business-casual norms.

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“In the casual vein, there’s always a crisp white shirt when she’s on the road,” he added, citing her now-famed combination of jeans, Converse Chuck Taylor lace-ups, a white button-down and a blazer. The simple, everywoman getup is “an ode to being a contemporary gal,” he said.

Tonya Blazio-Licorish, archivist for Women’s Wear Daily, agreed that there is a “power to [Harris’] decisions,” whether or not a fashion statement is her objective. “She might have on those sneakers, but she will have a blazer on top,” she said. “She’s always ready to be taken seriously, and to be heard.”

Harris’ style is not tailored to produce “Vogue moments,” Blazio-Licorish said, but “it is commanding, because she is commanding.” The monochromatic ensembles and body-skimming—not body-hugging—silhouettes are designed to divert the male gaze without shrugging off her femininity, she added.

And while one rarely sees Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, for example, in weekend-ready attire—or really anything that wouldn’t look at home in the halls of Congress—Blackman believes Harris represents a new class of politician unafraid to give Americans a peek behind the curtain. It’s a humanizing choice to be seen so comfortably sporting casual wear, he said, especially during a pandemic that has prompted many professional women to hang up their suits for the time being.

“We see her in her Converse on the campaign trail, and then we see her on a Saturday wearing them at home,” he said. “It reinforces the fact that in these various environments she’s being authentically herself.”

Style origins

A student of fashion history, Blackman nonetheless believes that Harris’ style is likely more informed by practicality than historical precedent. “She has the benefit of having a very strong sense of self, and an understanding of what her body looks like,” he said. Harris rarely takes bold risks, he added, but that doesn’t mean she’s ambivalent.

“What she does really well—a conscious decision that has evolved over decades—is allow us to view her through an uncluttered lens,” he said. She feels no need to over-adorn or flout her success by wearing recognizable labels, and that “simple elegance—and insouciance” can only come with groundedness.

But Harris’ poise could not have been fostered absent the trailblazing of female leaders past.

Her Inauguration Day choice, for example—the matching purple coat and dress by emerging black designer Christopher John Rogers—was widely considered a nod to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first to run for president. The color was a staple for Chisholm throughout her 1972 campaign.

While designer Rogers declined to comment on the inspiration behind his creation, Harris called out Chisholm by name when she accepted the nomination for the vice presidency in August—while wearing a deep maroon-purple pantsuit and matching silk top. “We’re not often taught their stories,” she said of the politician and former educator, along with Black civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary McLeod Bethune and Constance Baker Motley. “But as Americans, we all stand on their shoulders.”

Chisholm faced the burden of navigating a new fashion landscape amid her foray into politics during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Blackman said. “She had no one to look to as a predecessor, no one to mirror.” There were few women firmly entrenched in politics at the time, and emulating bellbottom-clad feminist agitators like Gloria Steinem was out of the question for a candidate who wanted to achieve mainstream recognition and success. What Chisholm understood of how a professional woman should dress she gleaned from “what was in the ether of good taste,” Blackman said.

At the time, that meant skirt suits in the style of Chanel’s iconic boucle creations, in which Chisholm was regularly photographed. “That particular mode of dressing denoted that she was from a certain cross-section of society and that she was educated,” Blackman said. “That was her default, and the suit did some talking for her. In reality, that was her only choice,” he added.

“She used fashion to create a shield, to set boundaries, so that she was respected as a voice and treated fairly as a Black woman,” Blazio-Licorish added of Chisholm’s style. “When a woman dons a suit, she’s not trying to be a man—she’s putting on armor so that she can stand in that world,” she added. “Shirley was in that world, and she brought to it a feminine strength.”

Looking at old photos of Chisholm, her wardrobe of colorful skirt suits and printed blouses bears little resemblance to Harris’ preference for strong tailoring and monochrome. One can, however, see shadows of Chisholm’s influence on other Black female politicians, from former Illinois Senator Carol Mosely Braun, who embraced colors, patterns and elegant tailoring during the ‘90s, to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was often seen in a boucle dress or suit paired with a strand of pearls throughout her years in the Bush administration. Blazio-Licorish believes that all of these women’s styles of dress were influenced by a need to conform to prescribed standards of appearance and behavior set forth by a mostly white, male majority in the political realm.

Shirley Chisholm left her mark on political fashion.
Shirley Chisholm left her mark on political fashion. Fairchild Archives

While her wardrobe cannot be described as boundary-pushing from a style perspective, Harris is not afraid to give a wink and a nod to Black leaders or feminist activists of the past. When she took the stage in a gleaming, pearl white pantsuit and pussy-bow blouse by Venezuelan-American designer Carolina Herrera on the evening of Nov. 7 to celebrate a long-awaited Democratic victory, the newly elected vice president’s ensemble was seen as a nod to the suffragists, who often turned up to demonstrations during the early 20th century wearing all-white ensembles said to represent the purity of their cause. The all-white motif has become a familiar call-back in recent years. More than 100 female Democratic lawmakers turned up to former President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address sporting symbolic white suits and dresses.

Harris’ penchant for pantsuits can’t be fully understood without examining two-time presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s love for the style, which engendered criticism and ridicule from all corners of the media for decades, as she served as First Lady and later in the Senate, Blackman said. Female politicians were rarely seen in pants before the ‘90s, he added, and Clinton embraced them as her signature long before they’d been given the mainstream stamp of approval. She even posed, perhaps a bit defiantly, for her official White House portrait wearing a black blazer and pants.

The speaker of the house has also embraced the style over the course of the past three decades. “[Pelosi] has been on the scene since 1987, and she has figured out a uniform that is impactful and powerful for her,” Blackman added. Pelosi, unlike Clinton, has been lauded for her style, which embraces color, prints and clean lines without making fashion a focal point. “She’s mastered the art of not distracting,” Blackman said, relying on coifed hair and strategically chosen brooches to inject a bit of personal flair into her wardrobe. “From a fashion point of view, there are some very recent role models that Harris has been able to watch navigate the space successfully,” and Pelosi is one such figure, he said.

It’s also impossible to divorce the veep’s style from her personal history, Blazio-Licorish said. “She was an ‘80s kid—blazers with the shoulder pads were a part of the zeitgeist,” she added. Harris would have spent her formative years wearing the pared-down business-casual looks that happened to be en vogue.

“She’s the oldest daughter of basically a single mom, so she was the serious kid who set the tone for her sister,” Blackman echoed. “That approach to life clearly never left her, and you can see that when you look at pictures of her in her youth.”

After graduating from Howard University, an historically Black college in Washington, D.C., Harris moved back to her home state of California to study at the University of California Hastings College of Law. “She became a law student, and was dressing the part,” Blazio-Licorish said. “She incorporated that aesthetic into her wardrobe forever,” she added, positing that the vice president’s style was probably fated from early adulthood, given her personal ambitions and the trends of the time. “I wonder if she ever could have looked any other way.”

Looking forward

As the first Black, female No. 2 in the White House, what Harris chooses to wear is almost guaranteed to remain a topic of conversation for years to come. Whether or not it’s fair to place that burden on her shoulders—along with the weight of the free world—is another matter altogether.

“I think we analyze someone in a public setting because it’s interesting, and we’re so far removed from who they are,” Blackman said. “They’re almost not people—they are entities.” Harris’ day-to-day decisions will not revolve around clothing or accessories, he added, “but I think we are conditioned throughout the world to look at women through this lens”—one where appearance matters.

President Biden, however, will not face the same pressures, Blazio-Licorish said. “Nobody ever cares what a man is wearing,” she said, especially in politics. “A blue suit is a blue suit.” For that reason, she believes it is not only unjust, but potentially damaging, to saddle Harris with the same scrutiny as was placed on the nation’s first Black First Lady, Michelle Obama, for example. “It would be unfair for them to take [Harris] down that path,” she said, “because she has a different job to do.”

Obama, beloved for “her platforms and her intellect” as much as her authentic, statement-making style, was nonetheless “not an elected official,” Blackman echoed. Harris, by contrast, was chosen by the people to play a role anchored in policy—and he believes her wardrobe will continue to be a reflection of the fashion lexicon developed over decades by female political predecessors and colleagues in Congress. “I don’t think it’s so much a uniform as a vocabulary,” he said.

The VP’s style will likely remain rooted in tradition, he added, but she is subtly asserting her perspective in a way few women in politics have had the opportunity to do. Chisholm’s Chanel suit was practically laid out for her decades before she ran for office, he added by way of example, while Clinton was mocked for her choice to wear pants less than a quarter-century ago.

“Time will tell what impact Kamala Harris has brought to our fashion sensibility as it applies specifically to politicians,” he said, “but I truly believe the authenticity that she’s bringing will empower young girls to embrace whatever their look is when their moments come.”