Style | January 20, 2021 3:21 pm

The Kamala Harris “Vogue” Controversy Is Proof That Female Politicians Can’t Win When It Comes to Fashion

The publication is printing a new cover after facing public backlash

kamala harris vogue
The two different versions of Kamala Harris on the cover of Vogue

After facing backlash over a February cover featuring Vice President Kamala Harris, Vogue Magazine has given in to online pressure and published a new version of the cover to commemorate Wednesday’s inauguration.

The publication initially faced criticism over a cover that featured Harris styled in her own, casual clothes — including her trademark Chuck Taylors — in front of a green-and-pink backdrop, with many arguing that the look was not formal enough to properly mark the historic occasion of the nation’s first woman vice president. Sources close to the Harris team even went so far as to say they were “blindsided” by Vogue’s decision, saying they were led to believe that the magazine would be using a more stately shot of Harris wearing a powder blue Michael Kors suit in front of a gold background. (That image was instead used as the “digital cover” for the online edition.)

Now, however, the blue-and-gold image will be released as a print cover as well. Vogue released a statement explaining their decision, saying, “In recognition of the enormous interest in the digital cover, and in celebration of this historic moment, we will be publishing a limited number of special edition inaugural issues.”

The new cover also removes a block of subtext reading “The United States of Fashion,” focusing instead solely on Harris and “the new America.”

The argument that the original cover was too casual for such a historic moment is a fair one, but Vogue insisted that it was reflective of Harris’s laidback style and personality, as well as the looser dress codes that are increasingly being espoused in formal settings.

“When the two images arrived at Vogue, all of us felt very, very strongly that the less formal portrait of the Vice President-elect really reflected the moment that we were living in which we are all in the midst — as we still are — of the most appalling pandemic that is taking lives by the minute,” editor-in-chief Anna Wintour told the New York Times. “And we felt to reflect this tragic moment in global history, a much less formal picture, something that was very, very accessible and approachable and real, really reflected the hallmark of the Biden-Harris campaign and everything that they are trying to, and I’m sure will, achieve.”

“It was absolutely not our intention to, in any way, diminish the importance of the Vice President-elect’s incredible victory,” she added.

If anything, the whole debacle is a reminder of the extra scrutiny that female politicians face regarding their appearance. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would bat an eye if Joe Biden appeared on the cover of a magazine without a tie. (And if Biden had selected Beto O’Rourke as his running mate instead of Harris, we no doubt would have been treated to more salt-of-the-earth images like his Vanity Fair cover, where the candidate appeared on a dirt road in a rolled-up button-down shirt and jeans.)

Women like Harris are damned if they do and damned if they don’t; they have to appear approachable but powerful enough to be taken seriously, well-groomed but not too glamorous — lest they be accused of being vain or frivolous.

We’d never expect Harris to appear on the cover of Vogue in a gown. Like the majority of the high-profile female politicians before her, she mostly wears pantsuits. Which is, of course, a tradition rooted in the belief that in order to be taken seriously by men, a woman must dress more like a man. I’m thrilled to say we now live in a world where a woman can be vice president, but I still would love to one day live in a world where a female politician can wear a dress on the cover of a magazine and not worry about how it might affect her in the polls.

To be clear, Harris looks great in the pantsuits, and we have no way of knowing her motivation for wearing them. Everyone has their own personal style, and of course, femininity is expressed in a million different ways. If she prefers to wear pants, she should absolutely wear pants. (It’s perhaps worth noting that at the historic inauguration, she deviated from her typical look and opted for a regal purple dress and coat designed by Christoper John Rogers.)

The point is, women politicians should be able to wear whatever they want without worrying about becoming a matter of national discourse. If that happens to be a dress and heels, great — they’re not sacrificing any gravitas by dressing in a more traditionally feminine way. And if that’s a pantsuit and Converse, that’s great, too; all we ask is that they’re afforded the freedom to express themselves sartorially however they see fit, just as their male colleagues are, and always have been.