It’s a classic social media quandary: You wake up to see that your friend has tagged you in a new photo. You go look at the post. The light has washed you out, you don’t know what you’re doing with your hands, and your smile is pained, as if you’re greeting a frenemy who just bumped into you in the grocery line. Your friend has, unintentionally you hope, put you in a terrible picture.
All that just happened to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Except the travesty has been captured, for us all to cringe at, on the cover of Vogue’s February issue.
This is not a critique of Harris’ appearance, or her ubiquitous, nothing-to-see-here all-black style. Her styling for the cover, shot by Tyler Mitchell, aligns with the story she continues to tell us through her clothes, which exude an unfussy warmth.
As a female politician, Harris works overtime to make clear that the outfit is not her purpose. And so she often wears jeans, tailored blazers, and for a pop of personality, Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. (The Daily Beast’s Brooke Leigh Howard wrote an excellent article about what Harris’ wearing of Timberland boots meant to her as a Black woman.)
According to Vogue, the cover’s pink and green backdrop is “inspired by [the colors] of her Howard university sorority.” In theory, this is a lovely nod to Harris’ background, and a visual representation of her historic victory.
But in execution, there stands Harris, clad in business casual, looking like an HR rep who just laid off half her staff, offering those who remain a conciliatory pizza party.
The problem is the background, and the layout. It is, sad to say, an optical blancmange, a badly designed mess. The pink drape does not look luxuriant, it looks like it has been thrown without thought over the green background. Harris, through no fault of her own, is somehow lost in this fussy sea. The portrait does not meet the moment, and Harris deserved far more.
But what does “more” mean? Powerful women will always come under scrutiny for the clothes they choose. Hillary Clinton was famously maligned for her expensive wardrobe during her 2016 presidential run, including a $12,495 Armani jacket plucked for a speech about inequality. Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, served as a style consultant for that failed campaign.
Four years, one presidency, and a devastating pandemic later, Wintour and crew—and likely Harris herself—want to project austerity when it comes to Harris. It all makes sense. Giving Harris a full glam squad and designer picks would draw criticism, especially from those on the right who love to unnecessarily scream about things like that. Perhaps the idea was not to give them any additional reason to attack Harris, even if they will anyway.
And yet the way the creative team went—so lifeless and anemic, as if Harris is welcoming you into a strange store of discarded fabrics—is just depressing. It all speaks to the hopeless optics Harris will have to contend with for the next four years.
The cover was first posted by the journalist Yashar Ali, who noted on Twitter that “this is not the cover that the Vice President-elect’s team expected.” He showed a different, more stately portrait of Harris in a powder blue suit, American flag tie, and a full blow-out.
That shot will be Vogue’s digital cover, and it was the cover tweeted out by Mitchell on Sunday morning; no sign of the weird, drape-y misfire.
A representative for Vogue confirmed to The Daily Beast that the bad cover was the one that went to print. The spokesperson would not comment on the record regarding Ali’s claims that Harris’ team had cover approval and was blindsided by the last-minute switch-up.
By Sunday afternoon, Vogue had posted both portraits to its Instagram and Twitter feeds. Alexis Okeowo’s profile of the future VP had posted on the glossy’s website, and the more assured photo of Harris in her blue suit was its lead image. One sensed some back-tracking on the part of Vogue. Unfortunately, it came too late for the print magazine itself, which will hit newsstands soon.
The magazine is standing by both images. In a statement sent late Sunday night, a Vogue spokesperson wrote: “The team at Vogue loved the images Tyler Mitchell shot and felt the more informal image captured Vice President-elect Harris's authentic, approachable nature--which we feel is one of the hallmarks of the Biden/Harris administration. To respond to the seriousness of this moment in history, and the role she has to play leading our country forward, we're celebrating both images of her as covers digitally.”
The Daily Beast understands Vogue collaborated closely on all creative decisions, including that Harris would dress and style herself for the shoot, and both looks were selected by the VP-elect and her team. A source said Vogue selected the image for the print cover that the magazine felt “captured her optimism, personality and authenticity. Obviously, we love both images.”