Though it may seem, given everything that’s currently going on in Washington, DC, a leaked shot of the Vogue cover of Kamala D. Harris, vice president, sparked an unexpected firestorm on Sunday.
In the February issue, Ms. Harris wears a dark Donald Deal jacket, skinny pants, Converse and her branded pearls. She stands in front of a leafy green background that is bisected by a pink curtain. The colors are meant to remind of their sisterhood at Howard University. She’s caught in the middle of a laugh, her hands clasped at the waist.
The picture was taken by Tyler Mitchell, who became the first black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover in 2018 (his subject was Beyoncé) and is known for his unexplored aesthetic. Though Gabriella Karefa-Johnson receives recognition as the session editor, also known as the fashion editor, Ms. Harris selected and wore her own clothes. The photo chosen is definitely unusual. Kind of messy. The lighting is not flattering. The effect is pretty un-Vogue. “Disrespectful” was the word most used on social media.
As the maelstrom of public hot takes began to buzz, Vogue released another, more formal portrait of Ms. Harris in a powder blue suit from the Michael Kors Collection with an American flag pin on the lapel of a gold curtain – the “digital cover”.
The journalist Yashar Ali wrote that this was the print cover Ms. Harris’ team was expecting and that her people, like the internet opinion leaders, were dissatisfied with the laid-back attitude. Vogue was seen as malicious.
According to those familiar with the arrangement, both scenarios had been agreed in advance, from the clothes to the scenery. While the portrait had been viewed as a “cover attempt” (magazine language for the intended but not designated cover) and as a still image as an interior photo, Vogue had not granted Mrs. Harris any contractual approval rights for the cover. That meant Ms. Harris’ team hadn’t seen the final decision that was left to Vogue and hadn’t known that the magazine had decided to swap the photos.
Ms. Harris’ team declined to comment on what had happened. The magazine issued a statement: “The Vogue team loved the pictures Tyler Mitchell took and felt that the more informal picture captured the authentic, approachable manner of Vice President-elect Harris – which we believe is one of the hallmarks of the Biden / Harris administration is. “
Oh well. And no.
Ms. Harris may be authentic and approachable, but she is also about to become the second most powerful person in the country. And right now the country is in the middle of a crisis and desperately needs authority and security. Ms. Harris has also made history as the first female vice president, first black female vice president, and first female vice president of South Indian descent.
No matter what happens during the Biden administration, she is a groundbreaking participant who should be on a pedestal. And while Ms. Harris isn’t the first Washington insider to be on the cover of American Vogue, she’s the first female officer elected. That means the cover is automatically a collector’s item. The image is part of the visual record of the land.
While Vogue may have envisioned her choice reflecting the modernity of the time, it was also one that contradicts the scope of the occasion. Ms. Harris may be the new establishment, but she is still the establishment.
As is Vogue – which is probably one of the reasons Ms. Harris agreed to do the cover in the first place.
It would always lead to an oversized test. Complicated by Vogue’s own chaotic history with race. Reports have been published about the magazine’s editor Anna Wintour and her own past with color staff. Previous covers featuring black women like Olympic gymnast Simone Biles made people do it criticize the magazine for the lack of black photographers and a lack of understanding of how to illuminate black women (a topic that also came up with regard to Ms. Harris). All of this, filtered through the lens of systemic racism in this country, guaranteed that Ms. Harris would be portrayed by the magazine especially full.
Before Mrs. Harris came women like Michelle Obama (three Vogue covers) and Hillary Clinton (the first first lady to appear on Vogue’s cover) – but not Melania Trump (or at least not Melania after her husband was elected; she appeared on the Vogue cover in her Dior wedding dress 2005). They were all first ladies when they appeared in Vogue, however; Your job was in part to be the first couple’s accessible side. Fashion was a widely accepted part of this role.
And while the Vogue cover isn’t the first cover of a Ms. Harris fashion magazine, it is posed for Elle during the campaign – it’s her first cover since being certified as the next vice president. Style has always played a complicated role in the public imagination when it comes to our female elected officials, given the history of using clothing as a means to undermine women. This only increases the stakes.
That’s why there was such an extreme reaction to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ‘Vanity Fair Cover and photo shoot. The New York congresswoman has been criticized somewhat hysterically by brands like Loewe and Carolina Herrera for posing in expensive ways – decisions that, while not her own, ran counter to her political positions and did not undermine her (she was likely shot, too) accidentally from Mr. Mitchell). Politicians are often scourged for showing up to airbrush or being seduced by the elitism of fashion.
And it may be that world leaders like Angela Merkel and Theresa May avoided the problem entirely. Why Ms. Harris doesn’t bother with questions about what she’s wearing and the designers who dressed her also forego comment. And also why there is almost no mention of fashion in the long profile that accompanies the Vogue cover by Alexis Okeowo. (Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, is a rare exception as she appeared on a cover of the Forces for Change issue of UK Vogue, but she was photographed in black and white and close-up.)
However, we continue to be very invested in the images our leaders and role models convey, and this continues to influence our own understanding of how authority and identity develop. Ms. Harris’ choice is personal to so many. Any coverage would also be taken personally. And while no one was satisfied with this or the reaction, it served us our service to reveal how deeply we care.