(CNN) — As soon as Kamala Harris took the stage in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday night, social media was filled with posts about her outfit. It was a telling sign, for better or for worse, of the public scrutiny her dressing style will face for years to come.
But while the vice president-elect’s acceptance speech will surely, and rightly, be remembered for the inspirational words offered to women in the United States and around the world, the comment about her wardrobe was not as trivial as it might sound. Because, instead of distracting from his words, the white pantsuit and bow blouse served to reinforce his message of unity and emancipation.
On a night when Harris attributed to the women who came before her – “I lean on her shoulders,” she said of those who fought for the right to vote in the early 20th century and of the “new generation” she had exercised. those rights last week – he also channeled his symbolism.
The color white has long been associated with the women’s suffrage movement, adopted as a symbol of moral purity alongside green for hope and purple for dignity. He also pointed to his spirit of non-violence, an olive branch for those threatened by his then radical calls for political equality.
But Saturday night wasn’t just about the women’s vote. Harris, the first black and south asian vice president-elect, was inspired by Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968, who wore white when she was elected. She was standing on the shoulders of Geraldine Ferraro, who dressed completely in white to accept the role of Walter Mondale’s running mate in his 1984 presidential campaign. And also on the shoulders of Hillary Clinton, who wore a pantsuit. signature target to accept the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Harris’s very deliberate choice was a gesture of solidarity with the long line of women who have defied expectations in America in politics. It showed that the vice president-elect is not seen as an exception to the rule, but rather part of a continuum, of the slowly bending “arc of the moral universe,” as President-elect Joe Biden put it in his own speech, quoting Martin Luther. King Jr.
Kamala Harris’s white dress
Harris’s bow blouse also carried historical weight. It evoked the powerful attire of Margaret Thatcher, who wore hers like her male colleagues wore ties, an apt metaphor for how the former UK Prime Minister co-opted and remade the boy’s club rules of 1980s British politics. More recently, Melania Trump’s choice of the classic garment at very particular moments, that is, a summit against cyberbullying and a presidential debate shortly after the “Access Hollywood” tape was released, were, they speculated. some (hopefully, perhaps), subtle barbs aimed at her husband’s infamous boast.
The vice president-elect was clearly looking beyond the Trump era to something more universal. But her outfit, supposedly created by American fashion designer Wes Gordon for Carolina Herrera, spoke of recent history in other ways as well.
Women in the Democratic Party have continually worn white in silent protest against a president whom they see as a threat to their rights. In Trump’s joint speech to Congress in 2017, a group of female legislators synchronized their outfits to raise awareness about women’s issues, including reproductive rights and equal pay.
They did so again in successive State of the Union speeches, most recently in February of this year, when lawmakers marked a century since the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote (although women of color would face voting barriers. for decades more). The image of Nancy Pelosi dressed in white clapping sarcastically behind the president a year earlier, as a large bloc of white-robed congressmen sat before him, will also long live in memory. Harris was also standing on his shoulders.
As he takes office, the vice presidency, which has been communicating through the men’s formal wear standards for more than 230 years, Harris’s wardrobe options will continue to generate discussion. The attention may not be welcome, but the lack of precedent could also be liberating. You have the opportunity to remake the role in your own image, creating a point of reference for the many women who will inevitably follow in your footsteps. As she told the crowd in Delaware, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last.”
Harris has already offered snapshots of her more casual side, particularly her apparent preference for Converse sneakers. While her Instagram account is heavily populated with the dark trouser suits she has traditionally favored, a video posted shortly after her projected win was announced shows her in workout gear as she celebrates with Biden on the phone (“What a we did, Joe! ‘). This kind of careless moment is a requirement of the social media era, but it offered something refreshing and stripped of the usual polished style.
Understandably, many female leaders have denounced public questioning of their fashion choices. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has raged at the double standards, denouncing “letter writing” instigated by teams seemingly selected to divert attention. Former British Prime Minister Theresa May, meanwhile, spent much of her prime ministerial post subject to unwarranted sensational criticism of impromptu fashion elections that would have been ignored had it been made by a male counterpart.
However, only the most blind political observers can deny the power of clothing, if leaders choose to exploit it.
On the biggest scenes, and at the most crucial moments, women politicians have embraced unspoken symbolism, whether Jacinda Ardern dons a hijab in an act of unity with Muslims in the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attack, or Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio -Cortez applying red lipstick as “war paint” while challenging a fellow representative for alleged sexism.
On Saturday night, Harris not only showed that he is aware of this power, but that he is not afraid to harness it.