It’s hard to imagine a headline from any major news outlet that reads: Is Mike Pence’s Fashion His Secret Weapon? After all, why would readers care that the Vice President tends to rotate between three standard gray, navy, and black suits? And yet, this exact article was recently published in the Wall Street Journal—the only difference being that Mike Pence was swapped for Kamala Harris.
In the months leading up to the November presidential election, Harris—Joe Biden's running mate—has received a substantial amount of press coverage for her choice of attire. Whether it’s that her “Chuck Taylors signal relatability” or that her signature “subdued uniform is an effort to keep the focus on the message, not the messenger,” journalists have a lot to say about Harris’ relatively uninteresting fashion choices. Videos of her exiting planes for campaign events have gone viral just because she is wearing Chuck Taylors or Timberlands while doing so.
To be fair, there has been some minimal–and rather comical–coverage speculating about Pence’s wardrobe choices and how they have gradually begun to mimic his President Trump's. However, this pales in comparison to the hordes of articles critiquing everything from Harris’ neutral–colored pantsuits to her practical shoe choices.
Paradoxically, the story about Harris’ outfits is that there is no story. She wears dark suits and pearls. She looks like any lawyer plucked from a courtroom. As Daisy Murray writes in Elle, “Harris' clothes and accessories are the least important things about the history–making Democrat Vice Presidential running mate.” So why are we still talking about it?
Women who run for office have long been subject to speculation and criticism about their apparel. Aesthetic scrutiny from the media is a virtually inescapable fact of being a woman in politics—in any industry, really—and its impact is only magnified for women of color.
After her swearing–in in 2019, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained that she was inspired by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to wear her signature gold hoops and red lipstick, so that “next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman.”
In 2016, Hillary Clinton wore a purple and gray pantsuit to her concession speech—a decision which she later described in her book What Happened as “a nod to bipartisanship” during a time where American politics felt especially divided.
But Harris doesn't do this. As one of the most visible female politicians in contemporary American history, Harris has been praised for her simplistic sense of style—rejecting the notion that women in politics must speak with their clothes. Yet many media outlets continue to speculate, picking apart what they perceive to be the hidden meanings behind her black pantsuits in a manner that hardly feels appropriate, or even relevant.
If her outfit’s statement is that it doesn’t make a statement, maybe we should let that happen in silence. We can and should debate about her policy goals and critique her political history, but we don’t have to talk about how fashionable her choice of footwear is just because she is a woman. Sometimes, a sneaker is just a sneaker.