But while the Vice President-elect’s acceptance speech will surely, and rightly, be remembered for the words of inspiration offered to women in America and around the world, the commentary on her wardrobe was not as trivial as it might seem. Because, rather than distracting from her words, the white pantsuit and pussy bow blouse served to reinforce her message of unity and emancipation.
On a night that Harris credited to the women before her — “I stand on their shoulders,” she said of those who fought for voting rights at the beginning of the 20th century, and of the “new generation” that had exercised those rights last week — she also channeled their symbolism.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris arrives to address the nation in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday. Credit: Robert Deutsch/USA Today/Bloomberg/Getty Images
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. It also signaled their ethos of nonviolence, an olive branch to those threatened by their then-radical calls for political equality.
Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to be elected to Congress, dressed in all-white. Credit: Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Harris’ very deliberate choice of outfit was a gesture of solidarity with the long line of women who have defied expectations in American politics. It demonstrated that the Vice President-elect does not consider herself 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.
Harris’ pussy-bow blouse, too, carried historical weight. It evoked the power-dressing of Margaret Thatcher, who wore hers the way male colleagues wore ties, a fitting metaphor for how the UK’s former prime minister co-opted and remade the boys’ club rules of 1980s British politics. More recently, Melania Trump’s choice of the classic garment at very particular moments — namely an anti-cyberbullying summit and a presidential debate shortly after the “Access Hollywood” tape came to light — were, some speculated (wishfully, perhaps), subtle barbs aimed at her husband’s infamous brag.
Margaret Thatcher sporting her signature pussy bow. Credit: Philippe ACHACHE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
The Vice President-elect was clearly looking beyond the Trump era to something more universal. But her outfit, reportedly created by American fashion designer Wes Gordon for Carolina Herrera, spoke of recent history in other ways, too.
Democratic representatives dressed in white during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in February 2020. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images
As she assumes an office — the vice presidency — that has been communicated through the norms of men’s formalwear for over 230 years, Harris’ wardrobe choices will continue to generate discussion. The attention may be unwelcome, but the lack of precedent could also prove liberating. She has an opportunity to remake the role in her own image, creating a reference point for the many women who will, inevitably, follow in her footsteps. As she told the crowds in Delaware, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.”
The women’s suffrage movement used white as a symbol of moral purity and nonviolence. Credit: George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images
Yet, only the most blinkered political observers can deny the power of clothing, should leaders choose to exploit it.
On Saturday night, Harris not only showed that she is aware of this power, but that she is unafraid to harness it.