Kamala Harris in Her White Suit


On Saturday night, when Kamala Harris stepped onto the stage and into history at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., as Vice President-elect of the United States, she did so in full recognition of the weight of the moment, and in full acknowledgment of all who came before. Of the fact she is so many firsts: first woman to be vice president, first woman of color to be vice president, first woman of South Asian descent, first daughter of immigrants. She is the representation of so many promises finally fulfilled, so many hopes and dreams.

How do you begin to express that understanding; embody the city shining on a hill? For the next four years, that will be part of the job.

She said it — “while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last” — and she signaled it, wearing something she had not worn in any of her moments of firsts since she joined Mr. Biden as his No. 2 (or, indeed, in the months before when she was running for the Democratic nomination herself): a white pantsuit with a white silk pussy-bow blouse. Two garments that have been alternately fraught and celebrated symbols of women’s rights for decades, but which over the last four years have taken on even more potency and power.

And it was the beginning of what will be four years in which everything Ms. Harris does matters. Obviously, what she wears is only a small part of it. But in her first-ness, in her ascent to the highest realms on power, she will become a model for what that means. How, as a woman, as a Black woman, you claim your seat at the highest table. Clothes are a part of that story. In some ways, they are how those at faraway tables connect to it.

Yes, what Mr. Biden wears matters, too. His aviators have become practically his doppelgänger; the blue tie he wore on Saturday night, representative both of his party and the blue skies to (they hope) come. Presidents have always used clothing as part of their political toolbox. John Kennedy distinguished himself from the generation that came before by opting for single-breasted suits instead of the more formal double-breasted styles favored by Roosevelt and Truman.

Barack Obama did the same by often abandoning the tie. George W. Bush wore his cowboy boots as a badge of origin and attitude. Donald Trump used his overly long, five-alarm-red ties to signal masculinity and send everyone down a master of the universe wormhole.

But what Ms. Harris wears, and will wear, could matter more. Why should we pretend otherwise?

(A website, WhatKamalaWore, has already sprung up to keep track.)

As Dominique and François Gaulme wrote in the 2012 book “Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Style,” clothing, from its earliest origins, was developed “to communicate, even more clearly than in writing, the social organizations and distribution of political power.”

And when the person possessed of that power is a pioneer, when she is defining a new kind of leadership, understanding those lines of communications and how to employ them is key. Not because she is a woman, but because she will be the first woman vice president.

Hillary Clinton came to understand this, over a career in which at first she seemed to dismiss fashion and then, as first lady, to resent it, before finally embracing it as a useful tool.

It began when she joined Twitter in 2013 with a biographical note that included the descriptors “pantsuit aficionado” and “hair icon,” along with “FLOTUS,” and “SecState.” When she started her Instagram account in 2015, her first post was a photo of a clothing rail with an assortment of red, white and blue jackets and the caption, “Hard choices.” During an Al Smith dinner before the 2016 election, she joked that she liked to refer to tuxedos as “formal pantsuits.” She weaponized her clothing as necessary.

This is an option of which Ms. Harris herself is well aware. She has embraced the political pantsuit tradition presaged in 1874 at the first National Convention of the Dress Reform League, when, as reported in The New York Times, one attendee declared: “This reform means trousers. They are freedom to us, and they afford us protection! Trousers are coming.” But she did not partake in the Crayola-colored pantsuit tradition of the generation before: Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel.

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