Social media was buzzing with comments about Kamala Harris’ outfit as soon as she took the stage in Wilmington, Delaware on Saturday night. This was a clear indicator of the public scrutiny that her fashion will be subject to in the future, for better and worse.
The Vice President-elect’s acceptance speech is rightly remembered for her words of encouragement to women around the globe. However, her comment on her clothes was not as trivial. The white pantsuit with pussy bow blouse was not distracting from her words but served to strengthen her message of unity, emancipation.
Harris gave credit to Harris’ night “I stand upon their shoulders,” she said about those who fought for the right to vote at the start of the 20th Century and the “new generation” who had exercised them last week. She also channeled their symbolism.
White has been associated with women’s suffrage movements for decades. It was adopted as a symbol for moral purity, alongside green for hope and violet for dignity. It was also a symbol of their nonviolence, a olive branch to those who were threatened by their radical calls for political equality.
Saturday night was not just about the suffragettes. Harris, the first Black woman to be elected Vice President and the first South Asian one, stood on Shirley Chisholm’s shoulders. Shirley Chisholm wore white when she was the first African American woman elected as Congresswoman in 1968. Geraldine Ferraro was standing behind her, an all-white woman who accepted the role as Walter Mondale’s running partner in 1984’s presidential campaign. She was standing on Hillary Clinton’s shoulders, who wore her signature white pantsuit in 2016 to accept the Democratic presidential nominee.
Harris’ deliberate choice of attire was an act of solidarity with the many women who have defied all expectations in American politics. It showed that Harris does not see herself as an exception to the rules, but is part of a continuum, the “arc of moral universe”, as Joe Biden said in his speech. He cited Martin Luther King Jr.
Harris’s pussy-bow blouse also had historical weight. It was reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s power dressing, who wore it the same way her male colleagues wore ties. This is a fitting metaphor for the ways in which the UK’s former prime Minister co-opted and remade British politics’ 1980s boys’ club rules. Melania Trump’s use of the classic outfit at certain moments, namely at an anti-cyberbullying summit, and at a presidential debate shortly following the “Access Hollywood” tape was revealed, were some people speculating that they were subtle barbs directed at her husband’s brag.
American fashion designer for Carolina Herrera
The Vice President-elect clearly looked beyond the Trump era and towards something more universal. Her outfit, which was reportedly designed by Wes Gordon, an American fashion designer, for Carolina Herrera, also spoke to recent history in other ways.
In silent protest of a president they consider a threat, the Democratic Party’s women have used white for years. A group of female lawmakers synchronized their outfits at Trump’s 2017 address to Congress to raise awareness about women’s issues including equal pay and reproductive rights.
At each State of the Union address, they did it again, most recently in February, to mark a century since the 19th Amendment granted women the right of vote. However, women of color will continue to face voting barriers for many decades. It will be remembered for many years that Nancy Pelosi, who was seen in all-white, clapping behind the President one year ago, as a large block of white-clad Congresswomen sat in front of him, is a funny sight. Harris stood on all of their shoulders.