Kamala Harris’s position as the first Black woman Vice President-elect of the United States comes with an invisible tightrope. We’ve seen her walk it carefully, with nary a stumble, since she and Joe Biden were elected. Harris and her team know she will be heavily scrutinised for everything she does — that’s the burden of being Black, the first, and an elected official — so when her January 2021 Vogue cover leaked over the weekend, it wasn’t surprising that social media had thoughts. It also shouldn’t be shocking that the word I would use to sum up the VP elect’s look is safe. It’s even more predictable that a Vogue cover starring a Black woman is being viewed as a disappointment. The magazine doesn’t have the greatest track record of photographing Black cover stars (see: Simone Biles).
It’s what happened after the cover dropped that has created an unforeseen conversation about the expectations Harris will be up against, her inclination to cater to those standards, and how much control American institutions will afford her to do so.
Yes, I got all of that from a pair of Chucks.
Vice President-elect @KamalaHarris is our February cover star!
Making history was the first step. Now Harris has an even more monumental task: to help heal a fractured America—and lead it out of crisis. Read the full profile: https://t.co/W5BQPTH7AU pic.twitter.com/OCFvVqTlOk
— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) January 10, 2021
Let’s start with what Harris could and did control: the clothes. I’m convinced Harris chose to wear a casual blazer by Donald Deal, simple black pants, and her signature worn-in Converse sneakers for the shoot (Vogue confirmed Harris styled herself) because of what people would say. After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was subjected to unfairly harsh scrutiny for wearing a borrowed $14,000 white Aliétte suit on the December 2020 cover of Vanity Fair, it was clear that Harris was going for an “of the people” look (on the print cover with this image, she’s flanked by the words “By The People, For The People” so yeah, it’s not subtle). It is definitively un-fancy. It’s purposefully unintimidating. Like a true politician, it’s as if she was trying to be as least divisive as possible. But the outfit is what sparked several tweets and takes dragging the casual cover.
Kamala Harris is about as light skinned as women of color come and Vogue still fvcked up her lighting. WTF is this washed out mess of a cover? pic.twitter.com/5O2q0axA0G
— E. Vaughan (@HypeVaughan) January 10, 2021
Vogue has Kamala Harris in some fucking Converse. Someone needs to throw a cinderblock at Anna Wintour fr
— miss mullet (@simplyIemonade) January 10, 2021
In the print Vogue cover image that leaked on Saturday, and was officially unveiled by the magazine on Sunday, Harris seems to have wandered onto a half-finished photoshoot set (I’ll come back to the backdrop) in between campaign stops. Even her expression feels incomplete, like the flash went off right before she could finish smiling. I understand the backlash. It is not the pomp, circumstance, or glamor we’ve come to expect from Vogue covers, especially with someone who will soon hold the highest office in this country a Black and South Asian woman ever has. But it is an outfit Harris is known for; one you could imagine her throwing on like it’s second nature. So, why does it look like she doesn’t know what to do with her hands? For me, the issue isn’t just with what she’s wearing, it’s that the final shot chosen for the COVER of Vogue with the incoming VICE PRESIDENT of the United States is one in which Kamala Harris doesn’t even seem comfortable in a look she clearly chose for comfort.
Harris is barely even posing. There is no reverence, but also zero playfulness. Vogue attempted to capture a historic figure in the midst of a country crumbling around her, and they failed to meet the moment. In the Washington Post, Robin Givhan wrote, “It was a cover image that, in effect, called Harris by her first name without invitation.”
The thing is, it was never supposed to be the cover.
On Sunday, a second Vogue image started circulating. Although he shot both images, photographer Tyler Mitchell (best known as the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover — Beyoncé in 2018) chose to share the image of a beatifically smiling Harris in a powder blue Michael Kors suit with her arms folded across her chest on his social accounts. There’s an American flag pin on her lapel. It’s a far better image — much more presidential — and if it were the print version, instead of a digital cover that will not be on newsstands, the discourse would probably have been very different. The blue suit shot is still pretty boring, but it’s very pretty (which we know is a prerequisite for female politicians). Harris looks confident. On Monday morning, the Associated Press confirmed this was actually the image Harris’s camp was expecting to be the cover. (Yashar Ali had tweeted the same on Saturday night.)
Ali claims that the Harris camp was “blindsided” by the more casual cover (it was intended to be an inside image in the magazine), which the AP noted as well. They approved the blue look and were just as disappointed as the rest of us when the more casual shot leaked as the official cover. The blue suit image is still safe, soft, and seemingly another attempt to come across as approachable. It says, “Call me Madam Veep” in a way a professor would try to appeal to their younger students without losing a sense of authority. I’m still not sure I agree with this direction — it’s okay to put a strong, powerful woman in something other than a power suit — but it’s what Harris wanted. Vogue released a statement to the AP confirming that they chose the cover to represent an “authentic, approachable nature, which we feel is one of the hallmarks of the Biden-Harris administration.” Vogue decided to tell on itself with this interpretation of what is deemed “authentic” and “approachable.”
Celebrities don’t always get to approve cover images, but we all know a white man of Harris’s stature would never have been played like this, even by an institution as storied and respected as Vogue. If Harris and her camp were blindsided by Vogue, that shows more disrespect than the styling, the lighting, or the backdrop.
Though the lighting of the shoot has been called into question (one tweet called it a “washed out mess”), we know Mitchell can properly light and shoot Black women. The blue suit image is proof of that. The prom-like backdrop drapery of both images has also been critiqued, but Mitchell says he chose the set design and colours “to pay homage to [the rich history of… sororities and their significance], to her status as an [Alpha Kappa Alpha], and Black sororities and sisterhoods worldwide.” That explanation makes me appreciate the backdrop more. Plus, the editorial lead on the shoot was Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, a Black woman.
Having Black people behind the scenes when photographing Black people is a new thing for Vogue, but Anna Wintour — who was recently appointed chief content officer at Condé Nast — is ultimately still in charge. And if the mess of this rollout is to be believed, she still hasn’t figured out how to hire Black people and trust and respect their vision. It’s clear that Harris had a strong one.
Harris is not the First Lady (Michelle Obama actually got to have some fun with fashion on her Vogue covers and shockingly, the magazine managed not to mess up her images). There is no precedent when it comes to women’s fashion and the vice presidency. She’s setting the VP style standard on her own, and through these images — intentionally or not — she’s telling us to manage our expectations. For Black women, that’s a letdown. I get that Harris is treading a thin line, but these photos don’t seem to have us in mind at all. And they aren’t reflective of Black writer Alexis Okeowo’s feature, a solid attempt to speak to the excitement and trepidation Black women feel about Harris’s upcoming term in office. Okeowo writes about Harris’s “natural charisma and relatability” (this shoot is devoid of both), but also about her history as a DA and whether she’s progressive enough to really be excited about. But no one is talking about Okeowo’s words. Instead, we’re focused on Vogue fumbling the chance to honour a Black woman. Again.