Kamala Harris on Vogue: Here’s the Problem


Though it might seem, in light of all that is going on currently in Washington, D.C., the least of the matter, on Sunday a leaked shot of Vice President-elect’s Kamala D. Harris’s Vogue cover set off an unexpected firestorm.

February’s issue features Ms. Harris in a dark jacket by Donald Deal, skinny pants, Converse and her trademark pearls. She stands against a leaf green backdrop bisected by a spill of pink curtain, colors meant to evoke her Howard University sorority, caught in what seems like mid-laugh, hands clasped together at her waist.

The image was shot by Tyler Mitchell, who, in 2018, became the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover (his subject was Beyoncé) and is known for his unstudied aesthetic. Though Gabriella Karefa-Johnson receives credit as the sittings editor, aka the fashion editor in charge, Ms. Harris chose and wore her own clothes. The selected photo is determinedly unfancy. Kind of messy. The lighting is unflattering. The effect is pretty un-Vogue. “Disrespectful” was the word used most often on social media.

As the maelstrom of public hot takes began to swirl, Vogue released another, more formal portrait of Ms. Harris in a powder blue Michael Kors Collection suit with an American flag pin on her lapel, her arms crossed in a sort of executive power pose against a gold curtain — the “digital cover.”

Ms. Harris’s team declined to comment on what happened. The magazine released a statement: “The team at Vogue loved the images Tyler Mitchell shot and felt the more informal image captured Vice President-elect Harris’s authentic, approachable nature — which we feel is one of the hallmarks of the Biden/Harris administration.”

Well, yes. And no.

Ms. Harris may be authentic and approachable, but she is also about to become the second most powerful person in the country. And right now, the country is in the midst of a crisis and deeply in need of authority and assurance. Ms. Harris has also already made history, as the first female vice president, the first Black female vice president and the first female vice president of South Indian descent.

It’s why there was such an extreme reaction to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Vanity Fair cover and photo shoot. The congresswoman from New York was somewhat hysterically criticized for posing in expensive fashion by such brands as Loewe and Carolina Herrera — choices that, while not her own, were seen as running counter to her political positions and undermining her (she was also shot, probably not coincidentally, by Mr. Mitchell). Politicians are often castigated when they seem too airbrushed, or seduced by the elitism associated with fashion.

And it may be why such world leaders as Angela Merkel and Theresa May avoided the issue entirely. Why Ms. Harris doesn’t engage with questions about what she wears, and the designers who have dressed her also refrain from commenting. And also why, in the long profile that accompanies the Vogue cover by Alexis Okeowo, there is almost no mention made of fashion. (Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, is a rare exception, having appeared on one cover of British Vogue’s Forces for Change issue, but she was photographed in black and white and close up.)

Yet we remain very invested in the images our leaders and role models convey and it continues to influence our own understanding of how authority looks and identity evolves. Ms. Harris’s election is personal to so many. Any cover was also going to be taken personally. And though no one was happy with this one or the reaction, it did do us the service of revealing how deeply we care.



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