On November 7, when the US presidential race was called in Joe Biden’s favour, his running mate Kamala Harris shared a video on her Twitter page of her ringing the president-elect to congratulate him. Dressed in leggings and a Nike sweatshirt and in the middle of exercising, 56-year-old Harris told him: “We did it. We did it, Joe. You’re going to be the next president of the United States.”
Harris’s choice of words and her casual attire — worn at a moment she made history by becoming the first woman, and first woman of colour, elected to executive office in the US — seemed to reflect her can-do attitude, like Barack Obama’s customary rolled-up shirtsleeves before her. And, crucially, by being captured in workout gear, which so many Americans have found themselves wearing more of during the pandemic over the past year, she appeared both relatable and authentic.
Approaching 100 days into the Democrat administration, Harris has continued in the sartorial vein that she espoused as US senator and California attorney-general before she was elected vice-president. She has cemented her own strand of power dressing, which is subtle, comfortable and practical. And her style staples — dark trouser suits, Converse sneakers and power pearls — have cropped up time and again, including on the cover of American Vogue for its February issue. All of this has reinforced the very specific visual brand that she crafted on the campaign trail.
The dark-coloured trouser suits “signal somebody who is confident and busy doing her job”, says Lauren Rothman, a Washington-based stylist. “There’s a power to what she conveys. She’s a full-time working woman in government — not a spouse and not a First Lady. This is different to what we previously talked about when we talked about women in the White House, which up until now has been First Ladies.”
Wearing the same uniform of a dark trouser suit each day simplifies things and clearly makes getting dressed each morning easier. In doing so, Harris follows former president Obama and the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who both had an unvarying signature look.
For Jobs it was an Issey Miyake black mock turtleneck, Levi’s 501s and New Balance sneakers. Obama, for his part, once explained his choice to wear only grey or blue suits, saying: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.” Both Jobs and Obama referred to research on decision fatigue, which shows that the simple act of making decisions can deteriorate one’s ability to make further decisions.
“It is pretty notable the ways in which Kamala Harris has not opted into fashion,” says Elizabeth Holmes, an American chronicler of royal and White House style. “Her personal style is minimal, business-like and professional. The flip side of that is when she does opt for a fashion moment, it gets a tremendous amount of attention. She understands that.”
Holmes notes the power of Harris’s signature accessories: Converse sneakers and pearls. “When anyone crafts a specific visual brand with a uniform like that, it allows their fans to honour them,” she says, drawing parallels with the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose fans emulated her iconic collars. For the 2021 inauguration, women across America wore pearls and Converse sneakers as a way to celebrate Harris.
But the original Vogue cover image, which featured Harris wearing Converse sneakers and casual clothes, prompted a backlash on social media. Critics said that by choosing this image over a more formal one in which she wore a powder blue Michael Kors suit, Vogue showed a lack of respect for Harris and her achievements.
“Converse sneakers are about the relatability she exudes — they are cute, affordable and accessible shoes,” says Kate Andersen Brower, an American journalist and author of three books about the White House. “This is someone who reminds them of their mom, neighbour or aunt, not in Manolo Blahnik stilettos like Melania Trump, which are inaccessible.” (Though it's worth pointing out that Harris is a Manolo Blahnik customer also.)
Often Harris uses her clothes to express solidarity with a particular demographic or cause.
She has worn a string of pearls for almost every public appearance since she was announced as Biden’s running mate in August 2020. Their significance harks back to her university days, when she attended the historically black college of Howard University in Washington. At Howard, Harris was part of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the first African-American Greek-letter sorority, whose founders are referred to as the “Twenty Pearls”. Her continued penchant for pearls reflects the lasting influence the sorority has had on her.
In June 2019, Harris wore an oversized denim jacket bedazzled with rainbow rhinestones — a symbol of LGBT pride — for the San Francisco Pride parade. While Donald Trump dismissed the effectiveness of wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Harris and Biden have continued to wear masks in public — even after they were fully vaccinated.
Crucially, Harris chose a white trouser suit on November 7 when she accepted the position as the first female vice-president-elect. This was loaded with significance: white is historically associated with the women’s suffrage movement and trousers are still a topic in the fight for gender equality. In February 2020, female House Democrats wore white to mark the 100th anniversary of the women’s vote during the State of the Union address.
In her acceptance speech on November 7, Harris paid tribute to the women before her. “I stand on their shoulders,” she said. By wearing white she drew a parallel between her election and the fight for women’s rights, and evoked political pioneers before her, such as Shirley Chisholm, who wore white as she became the first African-American woman elected to Congress in 1968, and Hillary Clinton, who donned a signature white pantsuit to accept the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
At the inauguration in January, Harris used the opportunity to showcase black designers — just as Michelle Obama did before her. Harris stepped out in a purple dress and coat by Christopher John Rogers for the swearing-in ceremony and for the evening inauguration celebrations chose a black sequinned cocktail dress and black blazer by Sergio Hudson. In the February 19 episode of the Well Suited podcast, Hudson spoke about his experiences of dressing Harris for the momentous occasion.
It was a “very intentional decision” Harris made to pick black designers, said Hudson. “It was showing that we are a broader spectrum than just urbanwear in the fashion industry.” Notes from her advisers urged him to remember that “she’s not a First Lady”, he said. Harris’s team is “very careful about how she presents herself; they don’t want people to say ‘this is what she wore’ first, they want people to say ‘this is who she is’ first because it’s a responsibility there — it’s much more than fashion”.
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This article has been amended since its original publication to note that Kamala Harris is a customer of Manolo Blahnik