In a year short of good news, many election-watchers greeted Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate with something like jubilation.
The California senator represents a history-making pick for a number of reasons. The daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants to the US, Harris is the first woman of colour to be nominated for national office by a major US political party, and only the third woman VP candidate. Which means that in a field full of business-as-usual candidates, in a year in which anti-racist activism has garnered widespread attention and support, more Americans have a nominee who looks more like them.
Except, of course, for one thing: she looks cooler.
Senator Harris is the rare high-level politician who manages to do her job and look like she enjoys style. Not in a trend-chasing way, but rather in an I-know-what-I-like way. Her sense of style appears more taste-driven (just look at her Vanity Fair Oscar party gown!) than shaped by outdated ideas of propriety (norms of dress in the Senate evolve sloooowly - women weren’t allowed to wear trousers on the Senate floor until 1993). The result is that she seems at home in her skin, not distracted by concerns about how her appearance might be interpreted, and ready to get to work.
If you’re wondering, “But isn’t it sexist to notice her style?” It’s true that commentators will scrutinise Harris’s appearance more closely than those of her male colleagues. (You’ll note we haven’t covered Biden, President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence’s campaign style in the fashion pages. Too boring.) But clothes have great messaging power, and fashion presents another opportunity for Harris to connect with the electorate - an electorate full of women who might like her outfits.
Here are five ways Senator Harris is redefining political style in 2020...
She remixes her suits
We all know that trouser suits can be stylish. Yet this is rarely true in Washington, DC, a city with a near-magical power to suck the oomph out of almost any fashion trend (unless you’re Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in which case… keep up the good work). Harris’s Senate uniform is a suit, but not as you know it. She decouples blazers from their matching trousers, wears them with contrasting trousers or skinny jeans, and swaps out silk blouses for T-shirts. It’s crisp, no-nonsense and authoritative, without looking like she’s emulating what her male colleagues wear to work.
No jewel tones, please: Black is the new black
Harris may have worn a politician-navy suit for her debut as Biden’s running mate, as did Biden. That’s understandable - the coordinating looks showed unity, and politicians like navy because it connotes strength, safety and steadiness, all traits Harris will be keen to emphasise in the campaign.
But her go-to suit colour is black. This sets her apart from Congressional colleagues who tend to stick to jewel tones and bright blocks of colour. Black doesn’t pop like red or cobalt-blue on TV. What it does is look serious, sharp and confident - descriptors that absolutely apply to her questioning then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings, one of her highest-profile public moments yet.
You probably have a pair of her favourite shoes in your wardrobe
Harris’s go-to shoes aren’t your average kitten-heeled pumps. They’re Converse trainers. She has a record of wearing versions of her favourite shoes with everything from cropped jeans to sharp black suits. As she told The Cut in 2018, “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.”
Her favourite kicks add a relatable, everywoman touch to campaign stops and show she’s willing to walk the walk to enact her political agenda - and, by the way, they also make those black suits look extra fresh.
Her hair: it moves
Remember Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s rigid blow-dry? Sarah Palin’s beehive? John Edwards’s $400 campaign-trail haircuts? (You probably don’t, but they caused a minor media uproar in 2007.) Harris’s hair is always polished, and also real rather than shellacked into submission.
Read Beauty Editor at Large Annabel Jones’s analysis of Harris’s hair here.
Pearls are her power accessory
There’s a line in Mrs America, the recent BBC miniseries about the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, in which Cate Blanchett, playing conservative lobbyist Phyllis Schlafly, observes an ideological opponent giving a TV interview while wearing a strand of pearls. “She's not fooling anyone in those pearls,” Schlafly scoffs. Anyone watching would have known exactly what she meant, because pearls have become a symbol of conservatism and traditional femininity.
This stereotype persists in Washington, except when it comes to Harris. The senator wore pearls as far back as in her 1986 Howard University graduation photo. She wears them today in less-traditional ways - instead of a string of pearls, she wears black pearls, or a double-stranded fine gold chain with spaced-out pearls. It’s a contemporary nod to a political standby, tradition and evolution, all in one little accessory. Now that’s power dressing.