For most of her career, Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) has stuck to a practical, nondescript uniform, but one can glean a lot about the Democratic vice presidential nominee and her approach to politics by paying attention to her fashion choices.
Harris’ signature look revolves around pairing dark, neutral pantsuits with softer items like round-neck blouses, pearl earrings and necklaces. It’s a go-to combination that has been consistent in her wardrobe for decades.
Joseph Rosenfeld, an image consultant who has worked with politicians (but not Harris), calls this pairing “a wonderful strategy.” Rosenfeld told HuffPost, “When she is wearing [this pairing], she is really conveying not a mixed message but a complete message, which is, ‘I am friendly and approachable and supportive and I will listen.’ But it also simultaneously means, ‘I’m tough. I don’t have time to waste and we need to get things done.’”
Hazel Clark, a professor of fashion studies at Parsons School of Design, told HuffPost, “One of the issues for women in the public eye is that they’re looked at with more scrutiny than their male counterparts; and not just for how they look but how much they’re spending on their wardrobe.”
This could explain why it’s hard to pinpoint which designers the senator wears. Clark points to criticisms of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) $300 haircut and Sarah Palin’s $180,000 campaign clothing budget in 2008 as examples of the type of attention Harris may be trying to avoid. “There’s a safety but there’s a personality there. She’s not going to dress outrageously.”
Her preference for safe choices over outrageous ones also speaks to where she falls on the Democratic scale in comparison to her party mates. Costume designer Charlese Antoinette notes, “You’ll see Elizabeth Warren wearing bright colors and pop colors more than Kamala. As we know, Warren is a little bit more radical and liberal in her policies, rhetoric and thinking. I would say based on her colors and the lack of color that Kamala wears, she’s a lot more conservative of a Democrat.”
Harris’ love of Chuck Taylors is well-documented, and Rosenfeld thinks adding the kicks to her powersuits “really shows she is a professional working woman on the go.” Harris has been adamant about seeking practical policies to support working parents ― particularly mothers ― such as adjusting school schedules to align with the typical workday and providing a six-month parental leave for every new parent. The suit and sneakers combo is a fashionable reflection of Harris’ political solidarity with the millions of working women who rock commuter-friendly shoes with their work uniforms.
Last November, constituents saw a more relaxed Harris when she wore her signature suit and pearls to Mindy Kaling’s house, this time making herself at home as she removed the unbuttoned jacket to reveal a cozy sweater before the two cooked a traditional Indian dish. This past August, fans of the Verzuz online battle series got a deeper glimpse at Harris’ relaxed comfortable personality when the senator wore a Howard University sweatshirt during a surprise virtual cameo at the Brandy vs. Monica battle. Both appearances gave audiences a chance to see Harris as more than just a tough politician, but as their relatable masala dosa-making, R&B-loving auntie.
But psychiatrist Rhonda Maddox doesn’t believe wardrobe itself is an effective tool to connect with voters, and that working too hard to emphasize her cultural background could hurt Harris’ campaign.
“We as a country have tended to try to alienate people who stand out as it relates to their ethnicity,” Maddox said. “We have prioritized and valued and celebrated people who’ve blended. I think her message is on point. She is communicating the message that ‘I am going to represent EACH of you. EACH group in a way that is respectful and impactful to you. But I am not going to patronize you by dressing a certain way when I’m here and dressing a certain way when I’m there.’”
Celebrity stylist Soneca Guadara agrees that a neutral wardrobe is a strong signal that Harris is here to work for all Americans, not just those she identifies with. Guadara said, “She wants to represent that she’s for everybody. If she’s showing too much of one ethnicity, people from other cultures may not feel represented. She keeps it neutral and classic.”
As we inch closer to Election Day, current events have presented Harris with an opportunity to dress outside of her typical suits. In mid-September, the senator donned a white tee, dark denim jeans, a green jacket and Timberland boots to survey a burn site devastated by California wildfires. The look was reminiscent of ― but in stark contrast to ― Melania Trump’s infamous “I really don’t care, do you?” green Zara jacket, which she wore to a Texas detention center in June 2018.
One accessory you’ll rarely see Harris without in 2020? A face mask. She’s a big proponent that everyone wears one to prevent the spread of COVID-19:
Wear a mask, not just for yourself but for those around you and the people you love.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) October 5, 2020
Harris’ generally nondescript style has helped colleagues and constituents alike focus on her policies more than her appearance. As the past few years have shown, when it comes to the presidential ticket, voters aren’t exclusively interested in policy ― they’re invested in a top politician’s personality, as well. And fashion can go a long way to reflect that.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.