America’s first female vice president-elect will appear on the February cover of Vogue wearing her signature Chuck Taylors and, while it would be hyperbole to suggest this particular sartorial choice is dividing the nation, it’s certainly dividing social media.
The leaked cover of Kamala D. Harris, photographed by Tyler Mitchell, features the soon-to-be madam Vice-President wearing her own clothes, including those low-profile Converse sneakers she’s famous for.
She looks approachable and friendly, the embodiment of the subhead positioned directly beneath her: "the new America." But she doesn’t look like she’s about to become second in command. And she doesn’t look Vogue.
Elected women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. The act of a politician appearing on the cover of a glossy fashion magazine — a space usually reserved for models, actors and pop stars with wind-whipped hair and dresses cut to there — is already fraught.
Look too sexy or too glamorous, show too much décolletage, and your credibility is suddenly called into question.
But even Harris’ cover was deemed "too" something — in this case, "too casual."
Some of the cover’s critics felt that casualness — of the clothing, which Harris chose, of the pose — undermined Harris’ power and achievement, even going as far as to say it was disrespectful.
"The cover did not give Kamala D. Harris due respect," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic and fashion editor Robin Givhan in the Washington Post. "It was overly familiar. It was a cover image that, in effect, called Harris by her first name without invitation."
This is not an unfair assessment. Indeed, Harris — a woman who, again, made history — deserves a glamorous, powerful, stop-you-in-your-tracks cover. This is Vogue, after all.
But imagine, for a second, the absolute fit people would have thrown if the incoming VP had appeared on the cover of Vogue in couture. Oh wait, we don’t need to imagine it: when Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York appeared on the December 2020 cover of Vanity Fair looking both confident and glamorous, social media commentators pounced on the fact she, a self-described democratic socialist, had posed in $14,000 worth of clothing between the cover and the inside spread, as though that suddenly made her Marie Antoinette. (Apparently, some people think one keeps the clothes, which is adorable.)
Harris sidesteps those criticisms, but her Vogue moment is lost in the process. No one would accuse Harris of looking too glamourous — but the photo doesn’t convey her power or the weight of her moment, either. She’s clasping her hands in front of her body in that folded pose favoured by 6 p.m. news anchors the world over, smiling warmly if stiffly. And she looks small, her frame overwhelmed by large bolts of fabric that, while symbolically meaningful — the pink and green are the colours of her Howard University sorority — look unfortunately like someone’s unironed drapes. A powerful woman with so many firsts beside her name deserves a commanding cover. Moreover, she deserves to take up space.
In an alternate cover photo, which will be used digitally, she looks positively vice-presidential in a powder-blue suit, American flag pin affixed to her lapel. It’s certainly the more formal and more polished of the two images — but it’s also the more boring. The safe choice. From an editorial standpoint, it’s easy to get why Vogue chose the Chuck Taylors shot as the cover: it’s the more interesting photo and, one suspects, the more "her" photo.
Sure, to be photographed for the cover of Vogue in sneakers is perhaps to be underdressed for the moment. But it is memorable, which is a stopover on the way to iconic. It’s a photo of a woman wearing exactly what she wants. The power is implied.