As Kamala Harris stood beside newly sworn-in President Joe Biden last week, all eyes were on her as she made history as the nation’s first female vice president.
But, much like other prominent women who have walked the halls of the White House before her, cultural experts expect that there will be just as much focus on her fashion statements as on her political ones — and the scrutiny may be intensified as the first woman and person of color in the VP position takes on stereotypes surrounding Eurocentric standards of beauty.
Harris grabbed headlines in November when she gave her victory speech while decked out in an all-white suit — a nod to the suffragettes who came before her. Now fashion insiders are analyzing the fashion statement she debuted at her Jan. 20 inauguration, and guessing what kind of designers and clothing choices might define her term.
For insight, we turned to UNLV fashion historian and 20th-century American culture expert Deirdre Clemente, whose career has included research and commentary on everything from the increasingly casual nature of presidential fashion to candidate Marco Rubio’s heels to the public reaction to former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits.
Here, Clemente dissects the history of and significance behind Harris and other women politicians wearing suffragette white, the differing standards on male versus female clothing choices, and the type of scrutiny Harris is expected to face in coming years.
What is the history of suffragette white?
There’s two or three big ideas behind suffrage fashion that made it successful.
The first is this idea of a cross-class collaboration or alliance. They needed to get everybody to look the same, achieving uniformity in how the suffragettes looked. White was a good color for that because there aren’t varying shades of it. And it allowed them to show unity: You didn’t necessarily have to be rich or middle class to participate in this movement.
Second, in the early 1900s, they were coming out of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when rigid ideas about women’s femininity were deeply entrenched in society. People were very fearful of women getting the right to vote and becoming like men, on top of changing fashions that saw some women wearing very masculine suits. So, suffragettes wore the color white to reconnect women with this idea of purity. And to disconnect from those associations of voting with masculinity, they proffered that they were the educators of the next generation. Women have always argued, even way back in colonial times, “How can we educate our sons to read and write and vote, if we can’t? If we’re not participants, how can we teach our kids how to be participants?” What’s more, the color white gave the women participating in the suffrage movement the same subscription to a middle-class white femininity because even women of color could wear white.
But also there was a practical element to it — everybody has white in their wardrobe. And historical records show that it was more often the leaders or marshals of suffrage marches who wore white, so everyone could easily identify who to follow, rather than the entire group of participants.
What is the significance of Kamala and other prominent women wearing the color white?
It ties into the power of image shaping. A book published in the late 1990s called “Selling Suffrage” examined how the movement tapped into a growing idea of American consumerism. The suffragettes used their clothing to ingrain themselves into this consumerism and sell themselves as modern and happy, rather than as angry feminists.
Even if the extent to which suffragettes wore the color white is somewhat exaggerated historically, Kamala Harris wearing white signifies to every woman in that audience that she’s one of them. She understands where she came from, understands her alliances with these other women, and her responsibility to these women and the women who came before her. So with no words, she’s acknowledging women as voters and women as a political force because so many people associate white with the suffragettes.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and other up-and-coming female lawmakers are purposely choosing to wear white. Because unlike previous generations of politicians, these women are saying it without saying it, and that’s one of the most powerful things about clothes.
What kind of attention around fashion choices have other women (for example, Jackie O, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, etc.) faced, and how does that contrast with the attention that male politicians receive?
It’s the same old story with women’s choices, women’s bodies, women’s clothing being regulated and criticized — and feeling like we can dissect whether or not Michelle Obama wears a tennis top that bares her arms. It’s this sense of access, that we can critique their bodies in a way that we would never critique men.
Part of the issue is that men have standardized clothing, so they in many ways sidestep a lot of criticism because we know that they don’t have a lot of variables to choose from. They can wear a red tie or a blue tie, a gray suit or a black suit. Remember when President Obama wore a khaki suit? That was a huge deal. But it’s very rare to see men have the same level of cultural attention paid to their clothes that women do.
And this is just part of the gig now in Washington. Although some people pay attention to things like designers and labels, the main focus on the clothing of women in politics ties back to ideas about women and a sense of immodesty that enrages the old guard. It’s similar to the historical shock that some women experienced when they stopped wearing girdles or stockings or bras. We expect these women to be super conservative dressers who just follow along behind their husbands and go back to their pet projects on the side.
But that’s not who Kamala is. We elected her as vice president. She’s wearing these clothes to project power, her own power and identity. So, the clothes have a lot more to unpack, I think, than your average female politician who wants to look good. She carries a lot more cultural baggage that manifests itself in how she dresses.
Kamala has a style to her. The famous white suit she wore the night of her victory speech itself is a reason for her to be able to claim icon status because it’s a different kind of suit. And she knows as a Black woman that she has a crazy double standard that Black women have long labored with.
Kamala wears her clothes as part of who she is in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen in a long time — except for maybe Michelle Obama, who is another Black woman who shrugged off criticism and was unapologetic in how she dressed.
Do you anticipate that, as the first woman elected to a White House position this prominent, there will be increased scrutiny on Kamala's fashion choices and is that fair?
I do think there’ll be increased scrutiny. But, frankly, I don’t think it’s going to matter. Because she’s had to sell herself to the American public as a strong Black woman but not an angry Black woman — she’s not pissed but she’s strong — she’s already had all these parameters put on her culturally as to how she should behave. I don’t think we’ll ever see a world where women are never judged by their appearance. Kamala will keep going on and shrugging it off. She won’t listen to the noise.
As an observer who’s watching her follow Melania Trump, whom few could argue is a beautiful dresser and has beautiful clothes: It’ll be very interesting to see who steps forward to dress Kamala Harris — unlike with Melania, who a lot of designers publicly said they wanted to avoid being associated with. But will Kamala take the offers or will she care? Because that’s what makes everybody get her — how many of us have a pair of heels in the back of the closet and wear tennis shoes until we get to the event? I think she resonates with women in the way that she dresses. Another aspect to this is the juxtaposition with Donald Trump. Comments about his tan, clothes, and hair are more of a side note insult. We don’t write articles dissecting his skin or hair. But people will write entire articles about Kamala Harris and her clothes. It’s an interesting difference but it’s no difference at all when you consider that women’s bodies and appearances, in today’s society, are up for debate, commentary, and critique in a way men’s bodies simply aren’t. And Kamala’s body, as a woman of color, is up for dissection on another level — so she’ll really get a lot of attention on her fashion choices. That may be okay for her because she can use the discussion to bring about commentary on identity for Black women, and I don’t think she’ll be endorsing white standards of beauty.
What are your thoughts on the jewel-toned inauguration outfits — all styled by designers who were young or people of color — worn by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and former First Lady Michelle Obama?
In my eyes, it was a coordinated effort by all three women and their stylists to present a united front. You couldn’t have scripted a more obvious break from the Trump administration. These women are making political statements with their clothing about who they are and how they view themselves in the eyes of the broader electorate.
Designer choice matters. For example, Melania always wore European designers, much like Jackie O who only started turning to American designers after receiving public criticism. By contrast, these women (Biden, Harris, and Obama) chose these designers not because they were high-end or famous. They wanted them to be young, and up-and-coming. That’ll be a mark of the Biden administration: Who can we lift up to get some new blood into the fashion industry? And who better to do that than a vice president who’s already making history in multiple other ways?