Kamala Harris: Why It Matters What She Wears

Kamala Harris: Why It Matters What She Wears

There is every reason to believe that the VP Elect of the US will fashion a new season of political style 

This is not a straightforward start to a piece on Kamala Harris’s clothes and style. What she wears may be among the smallest details of her arrival on the global political stage as the Vice President-elect of the United States.

That is why this circuitous route.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s 2015 book A Country of First Boys has essays on “the hardened and extreme nature of inequality in India”. Yet Sen offers deeply insightful arguments on what makes India an integral part of world civilization. Astronomically reasoned calendars, the invention of chess, branches of modern mathematics and a lot more that marks India’s multiple contributions to the world, as we know it.

Compelling, the title essay is about the “first boys syndrome”. Boys who did extremely well in the Indian education system that at best can be defined as one big mess. Boys who went on to achieve high positions of power, influence and academic excellence in the West. Boys who had stood first in their class back in India.

Sen’s observations do not directly include Indian mothers who shape the minds of their children with ideas of solidarity, leadership and ambition that has a culturally specific resonance. Yet, it offers the matrix of reasoning for us to do so. Kamala Harris’s victory as the Vice President-elect of the United States may urge us to think about “India as an integral part of global civilization” in more ways in the future. For history to make note. Of the fire in the belly that women, even those who did not secure a full Indian education take with them when they immigrate to other countries in search of a better life. A “first girls syndrome” that Shyamala Gopalan the late mother of Kamala Harris may have been a part of.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons


The first woman, first political figure of South Asian descent and the first child of an immigrant couple to become the VP Elect of the world’s most powerful (and currently most politically and racially tumultuous) nation had an Indian mother from Thulasendrapuram in Tamil Nadu. A parent who clearly helped Harris shape her ideology as a person, citizen, professional and set her on the path to extraordinary success as an acclaimed attorney and now a position of historical distinction.

That is why we Indians must follow Kamala Harris’s dress and identity, clothes and conversations a lot more carefully. Harris’s white pantsuit—a direct salaam to the women’s suffragette movement now in its 100th  year after some women were given the right to vote with the 19th Amendment to the US constitution passed in 1919—makes her choices as a leader clear. She is a voice for women of all colours. That she wore her suit with a pussy bow white satin blouse (which acquired an added symbolism in the Trump era) underlines the importance Harris gives to clothes for political and personal statements. “All the women who worked to secure and protect the right to vote for over a century: one hundred years ago with the 19th Amendment, 55 years ago with the Voting Rights Act and now, in 2020, with a new generation of women who cast their ballots and continued the fight for their fundamental right to vote and be heard. Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision—to see what can be unburdened by what has been—I stand on their shoulders,” said Harris standing tall on her salmon pink kitten heels in her speech on Saturday, November 7. That statement made her white stand out in the dark that American politics has seen in the last few years.


Photo: Octavio Jones/Getty Images/AFP

Harris speaks during an early voting mobilisation event at the Central Florida Fairgrounds on October 19, 2020 in Orlando, Florida.

That she pairs sneakers—Harris wore a selection of Chuck Taylors on her campaign trails setting Twitter (and fashion columns) abuzz in September—with skinny jeans and suit jackets makes her a person attracted to formal-informal mix and match. She is not attentive to textbook trends dictated by a season, catwalk or political documentaries that catalogue the clothing choices of women in global politics. That she can glide as easily to court on kitten heels or run in sneakers—writers have commented on the significance of sneaker culture in the lives of persons of colour—tells us that she has studied the terrain that she set out to conquer. “The progenitors of sneaker culture were predominantly… kids of colour who grew up in a depressed economic era,” writes Bobbito Garcia in Out of the Box.

Kamala Harris’s prominent pearl earrings, her dainty necklaces, her collection of sneakers may give us wardrobe stories but it is in her articulation where her charm lies. It is the light in her eyes that speaks of promise. The glow of her skin hat exudes the reassuring warmth that no bronzing face palette in the world can brush on.


Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP

Harris speaks during the SF Pride Parade on June 30, 2019 in San Francisco, California.

Those keen to see Tamil Nadu woven saris during the Presidential oath taking ceremony in January 2021 may be assured that Harris’s chitthis (aunts) would wear some. There are photographs trending already of her earlier images with her aunts, the latter all in saris. However, those waiting to see Harris giving precedence to Indian designers (of Western clothes) from India or the US could well avoid being stuck in nationalist expectations. She is a woman of the world. That is why we are talking about her.

Most interesting for those keen on tracking Harris must check out WhatKamalaWore. Launched by journalist Susan E. Kelly when Joe Biden announced Harris as his running mate—the website is dedicated to Harris’s sartorial choices with a full breakup of what she wore on each outing. Kelly, who also founded WhatKateWore clarifies that her platform is not for politics. The site provides details and links to retailers of the brands that Kamala Harris wears. The white suit of election victory night by American designer Carolina Herrera is described as a “blend of 93 per cent virgin wool, 4 per cent elastane for stretch and 3 per cent nylon.”

When you combine glancing through WhatKamalaWore with the most analytically in-depth pieces written across international publications on Kamala Harris and her ascendance to the global political stage, it strikes you how a certain set of words start orbiting around a person. They become definitive and familiar. For Harris, they include—Indian origin, woman of colour, chitthi, pearls, sneakers, acclaimed attorney alongside a litany of “firsts”.

The first woman with an Indian mother from the country of first boys, shall we say for a wrap?

Banner: Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks on stage at the Chase Center before President-elect Joe Biden’s address to the nation November 07, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Image courtesy: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/AFP