On the evening of her historic election win, Kamala Harris walked onto the stage to mark her appointment as the first woman, Black, and South Asian U.S. Vice President-elect. Her speech was rousing, but the look she chose for the occasion was just as powerful.
She wore a white Oscar de la Renta suit and a satin pussy bow blouse. The color white paid homage to Shirley Chishom, the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress. It was also a nod to the suffragettes who rallied to give women the right to vote, 100 years prior.
Harris’ pantsuit recalled Hillary Clinton’s groundbreaking Presidential campaign, as Clinton wore the look so often that it became an emblem of modern feminism and inspired a legion of supporters dubbed Pantsuit Nation. Even the designer Harris chose, Carolina Herrera, is aligned with the legacy of women in the White House who previously wore her pieces, from Former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis to Michelle Obama. Harris’ satin pussybow blouse had its own separate meaning. After Donald Trump’s inflammatory Access Hollywood tape, where he bragged about “grabbing women by the p-ssy,” pussybow blouses became a symbol of solidarity in the face of sexual assault.
Every detail of Kamala Harris’ look was measured, deliberate, and a signal of things to come. With her thoughtful approach to dressing, she joins a pantheon of women in politics who send deeper messages through their clothing. Former First Lady Michelle Obama made the same considered fashion choices, wearing Indian American designer Naeem Khan for a 2009 state dinner in India, for example. Now, everyone from Meghan Markle to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is following suit. But Kamala Harris adds something new to the vernacular. Her fashion choices have cultural significance too, speaking to her personal identity and allowing her to relate to the American people on a deeper level. In the White House, and with a dedicated wardrobe team, she’ll be able to build on that connection even further.
As she makes the shift from Senator to Vice President, Kamala Harris will “need someone to help her with her wardrobe,” says Constance White, journalist, content creator, and author of How To Slay. “Whether that will be a Meredith Koop-type person or someone more like Ikram, a retailer, who can advise and order for her, it just makes sense that she will have less time than she ever thought possible and this is one area that can be delegated.”
As for her style evolution, celebrity stylist Kristen Turner foresees a slight but pointed shift. “I predict we’ll still see the classic Kamala Harris style just perhaps a bit more elevated and polished.”
White agrees, noting that her style won’t change exponentially, but “one important difference is that Vice President-Elect Harris’s suits [will be] more sophisticated in their fit and in brand.”
Indeed her style is already evolving. As San Francisco District Attorney, California Attorney General, and finally, California Senator, Harris spent decades crafting her signature look, one that balances sharp menswear with softer flourishes like blouses, and shies away from making any political or culturally-specific fashion statements. She’s known for wearing nondescript dark pantsuits, punctuated by pearls and conservative pumps.
“Kamala Harris’s style manages to strike an authentic chord between ambitious, urban working woman, and suburban, church-going striver,” says White. “Knowing quite a few lawyers myself, her style is heavily influenced by her legal profession: the pearls, the dark suits. ‘No nonsense. Let’s focus on the facts of the matter.’ She seems to have worked out a style that she’s comfortable in, attractive in, and that deliberately does not call attention to itself. This is what I have observed a lot of female lawyers have had to do to be taken seriously.”
As Harris hit the campaign trail, however, that look slowly started to change. Her white pantsuit on Election Night and burgundy pantsuit at the Democratic National Convention speak to a new era in her style repertoire, one where she might embrace lighter hues in her wardrobe and look for suits with both political meaning and personality. In effect, she’ll treat her suiting like she already does her accessories.
One of the most distinguishing elements of Kamala Harris’ style is her affinity for pearl necklaces. She’s rarely seen without them, whether she chooses a pearl and gold chain by California designer Irene Neuwirth, or a single strand of Tahitian pearls.
“A pearl necklace is the quintessential Anglo accessory of propriety and conservatism,” White explains. “In this regard, the necklace is significant. You think of Jackie Kennedy: the country club 2-strand pearls and a sweater set. Every Hollywood movie heroine or goody two-shoes wore a strand of pearls. She’s safe. She toes the line.”
Turner echoes this sentiment. “Generally, pearls symbolize strength, beauty, integrity, and knowledge,” she says. “For me, however, her pearl necklace symbolizes something more [as] a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA), the first historically Black Greek-lettered sorority, of which Kamala Harris is also a member.”
For AKAs, 20 pearls represent the 20 founders who created and incorporated the sorority in 1908 at Harris’ alma mater, Howard University. Seventy-eight years later, in 1986, Harris graduated from the historically Black university wearing a single-strand pearl necklace and drop pearl earrings in her graduation photo. “I’d like to think she wears the pearl necklace as an homage to our illustrious sorority and as a reminder of the strength of our sisterhood,” says Turner.
That symbolism and cultural significance isn’t only reserved for jewelry. While her heels are usually understated, Harris’ casual shoe choices draw plenty of attention. The Vice President-Elect can be seen touring areas impacted by wildfires or marching during San Francisco’s Pride parade wearing Converse sneakers or Timberland boots — and fans love it.
To be fair, she’s not the first politician to don casual footwear, but there’s a degree of authenticity Harris brings to the look. She treats her Converse Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers like most fans of the brand, pairing them equally with formal looks like suiting and casual outfits like denim. Only someone who regularly wears Chucks, as they’re affectionately called, would recognize the shoe’s versatility. This leads her supporters to believe that the sneakers are a staple in the Vice President-elect’s wardrobe rather than a shallow attempt to pander to the youth.
Converse recognizes the significance of Harris’ fondness for their sneakers, telling Hello Beautiful in a statement: “Our iconic All Star sneakers have shown up in moments of progress, change, and creativity; our canvas is adopted around the world and across cultures as a symbol of expression. We are pleased that the Madam Vice President-elect has chosen the Chuck Taylor All Star as a reflection of her personal identity in a historic moment.”
Harris recently appeared on the January cover of Vogue in a pair of Converse sneakers that sparked much ado about the historic fashion magazine’s decision to showcase the VP-elect in a more casual light. Though Kamala chose to don a more approachable look, she and her team were under the impression her cover shot would be a more traditional political portrait.
Indeed people around the world and across cultures, identify with Harris’ shoe choice. Her Timberland boots, on the other hand, speak to one culture in particular. The footwear choice is “very American, every woman, yet Afro-centric and California cool,” says White. “A woman — and especially a Black woman — in tight jeans and boots is very Black to me.”
Timberland boots are an iconic staple of hip hop culture, with rapper endorsements tripling the sale of the 6-inch style in the 1990s. With her Timberland boots — and her Howard University sweatshirt, for that matter — Kamala Harris is embracing Black culture in a way that we don’t often see in the political arena.
Dr. Dawnn Karenn, a fashion psychologist and author of Dress Your Best Life, says Kamala “employs the fashion psychology field theory that I’ve coined in my book, referred to as fashion situational code-switching. [It’s] when people, especially minorities, modify their style to get along in certain situations and transition back to a different mode of style in other situations.” That delicate dance is something many Black Americans are used to, and perhaps, the ease with which Harris moves from Timberland boots to conservative pumps is relatable to them.
With both her Timberland boots and Converse sneakers, Harris chooses items that are not only unique and authentic to her personal style, but also culturally significant to the communities she serves and represents. This approach to casual dressing will no doubt continue as she transitions onto a platform that’s even more visible.
Though her style may be elevated with the addition of a new creative team, Harris won’t abandon her use of clothing to send cultural and political messages. In fact, she may take it a step further. Karen predicts she “will give streetwear designers a platform unlike any other VP has ever done,” delivering more sartorial moments like her go-to Converse sneakers and Timberland boots. “She will know when to be conservative and when to be personable. This will make her more likeable and relatable, essentially the people’s VP.”
While her pearls will continue to be a time-honored staple, Harris’ formal looks will start to evolve. Alongside a new appreciation for color, Harris may wear more conspicuous designer clothing, like her Oscar de la Renta suit on Election Night. “Being the highest profiled woman in American politics, there will be plenty of designers ready to dress her,” says Turner. “I’d love to see the Vice President incorporate Black designers and Indian designers into her wardrobe. Perhaps giving a speech in a suit from Christopher John Rogers? Or how about an inauguration gown designed by Naeem Khan? I’m looking forward to it all.”
Jessica C. Andrews is the Deputy Fashion Editor at Bustle. As a freelance writer, she’s contributed to ELLE, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and more. A graduate of Columbia University, Jessica hails from South Orange, New Jersey and currently lives in Jersey City.
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