On Saturday night, when Kamala Harris stepped onto the stage and into history at the Chase Centre in Wilmington, Delaware, 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. She is so many firsts: first woman to be vice president, first woman of colour to be vice president, first woman of Southeast 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 signalled it, wearing something she had not worn in any of her moments of firsts since she joined Joe 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. The two garments 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.
The white pantsuit: a nod to the struggle to break the final glass ceiling, stretching from the suffragists through Geraldine Ferraro, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and the women of Congress. A garment in a colour meant, as an early mission statement for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage published in 1913 read, to symbolise “the quality of our purpose.” Latterly redolent with frustration; now, finally, transformed into a beacon of achievement.
The pussy-bow blouse: the quintessential working woman’s uniform in the years when they began to flood into the professional sphere; the female version of the tie; the power accessory of Margaret Thatcher, the first female British prime minister. And then, suddenly, a potentially subversive double entendre in the hands of Melania Trump, who wore a pussy-bow blouse after her husband’s “grab ’em by the pussy” scandal.
Now, again, reclaimed.
The point was not who made the clothes; it wasn’t about marketing a brand (though, on the subject of “building back better,” the suit was by Carolina Herrera, an American business). The point was that to wear those clothes — to make those choices — on a night when the world was watching, in a moment that would be frozen for all time, was not fashion. It was politics. It was for posterity.
And it was the beginning of what will be four years in which everything 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 Biden wears matters, too. His aviators have become practically his doppelgänger; the blue tie he wore 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 favoured by Roosevelt and Truman.