The Power of Kamala Harriss Inauguration Outfit


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As the first Black woman of South Asian descent to reach the second-highest office in the land, Vice President Kamala Harris represents how far we’ve come in American politics.

Her clothing choices Wednesday represent just how far we’ve come in fashion, too.

For the inauguration, Harris opted for a striking purple coat and coordinating dress. When the first photographs appeared, social media immediately lit up—with commentary not just about how she looked (gorgeous, obviously) but about what her ensemble meant. Watchers knew that the shade signified unity, a blend of Democratic blue and Republican red. They also cheered on her choice of not one but two Black designers, Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson, shining a spotlight on young American fashion talent. And the pearls! Her signature pearls shone in the winter sunlight, a beacon to those supporters who wore theirs to celebrate her, and in solidarity with her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters who were cheering her on. It was a recognition of the power of fashion; I felt a wave of joy at the collective embrace of all that style can represent.

To be sure, the path to this moment has been paved with withering critiques of prominent women, an unfair burden men seem to all but avoid (unless you’re President Obama’s tan suit). Think of the hoopla over Sarah Palin’s campaign makeover, or the hot takes on Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. Add to that four years of Melania’s fashion, a myriad of luxury designers and head-scratching choices—except for that loathsome, loud-and-clear “I don’t really care, do u?” jacket.

But now, with a woman elected to national office, we can finally dispense with the trite “Why does it matter what they wear?” questions. What public figures wear receives a tremendous amount of attention, it always has and likely always will, so long as the visual-heavy cable news and social media dominate our screen time—and that presents a great opportunity to choose clothes that represent who they are and what they stand for.

vice president harris's necklace made of pearls

Vice President Harris’s signature pearl necklace.

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During the campaign, Harris boasted some standout style moments, seen in her celebrated Converse sneakers, signaling her accessibility, or the white suffrage-inspired pantsuit history had been waiting for, which she wore the evening she and Joe Biden celebrated their victory. But there was something also quite striking about the times she opted out of the fashion discussion. For the vice presidential debate, she chose an unidentified navy suit, effectively rendering her clothes not open for commentary or criticism.

For Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony, the meaning behind Harris’s choices ran deep. In addition to unity, the color purple honored Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress who chose the hue for her 1972 presidential campaign. Purple also paid tribute to the century-old U.S. women’s suffrage movement; American women followed in the footsteps of their British counterparts who had claimed the shade because of its royal ties.

The saturated, singular color of Harris’s ensemble made it a bold and notable departure from her usual neutrals. But the design was entirely familiar, which represents its own achievement. Her coat, with its notched lapels, buttoned-lined cuffs and two-button closure, looked strikingly similar to the suit blazers we have watched Harris don for years. As a former California attorney general, Harris long ago embraced the traditional prosecutorial uniform of a dark, menswear-inspired pantsuit. Her blazers were a constant on the campaign trail; even for her casual engagements, she wore them with jeans. With her inauguration coat, she maintained her signature straightforward style—no need for embellishments or flourishes.

vice president kamala harris and her husband doug emhoff at the 2021 inauguration

Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff at the 2021 Inauguration.

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The simplicity of the dress underneath was tactically smart, without a scarf or detail at the neckline to flap and distract in the wind. But mostly it served to showcase Harris’s signature pearls, which are arguably the most defining part of her public image. The Vice President has become known for her pearls, a symbol of her membership in the Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Greek-letter sorority founded by Black women at her alma mater Howard University. For the inauguration, Harris wore a pearl necklace by Wilfredo Rosado, a Puerto Rican designer who worked for Giorgio Armani and Andy Warhol. The elliptical chain link, described by the brand as a “bold yet feminine statement,” featured South Sea pearls with small diamonds floating in between. “When I think of hip-hop style, the artists are always wearing heavy chain links, and I decided to combine that with pearls,” the designer told Town & Country.

More so than any one necklace, Harris’s pearls have come to mean something special to her supporters. They wear them to honor her, much like fans of Ruth Bader Ginsburg sport her statement collars. A Facebook group called Wear Pearls on January 20th, 2021, amassed more than 450,000 members. On Instagram, the hashtag #pearlsforKamala was filled with women celebrating her swearing in. And isn’t that the most powerful use of fashion? Crafting a visual legacy that can be shared and enjoyed widely? I, for one, am excited for the next four years.

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