Clothing says a lot. And then there are shoes.

By Sam Reed
Sep 16, 2020 @ 4:54 pm
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On Tuesday evening, Senator Kamala Harris (D - CA) was filmed deplaning a private jet in Fresno, Calif., where she was observing the devastation caused by the wildfires. The 55-year-old was light on her feet, almost as if she was flexing her youth — she’s 22 years younger than her running mate, 77-year-old Vice President Joe Biden, and six years younger than her Republican counterpart, current Vice President Mike Pence.

Her pep was not what earned her attention. It was her Timberland boots. It’s unclear which specific style Harris wore last night (our eagle-eyed  fashion editor believes they may have been the brand’s sneaker hybrid boot), but the wheat colorway and leather ankle support made their point: Harris not only understands the culture, she’s a part of it.

Shoes may, on the surface, appear a shallow thing to latch on to. “Women are more than their clothes,” laments every think piece ever. But in an age of fashion diplomacy, what we wear matters. Image always has — ahem, Nixon versus Kennedy. These days, if a woman wants to use her shoes to make a statement, we’re all for it. Plus, for Harris, it paid off. 

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The senator, who is of South Asian and Jamaican descent, has worn heels on the debate stage, but in recent days has been striking a different style chord, opting instead for classic Converse, and, of course, the immediately recognizable Timbs. The iconic boots have a rich history in the Black community: Ebony reports that ‘90s hip-hop legends like DMX, Jay Z, and the Notorious B.I.G. helped triple Timberland sales, and that they were at one time more popular than Nike’s Jordans, inspiring similar hiking styles by Adidas, Reebok, and Nike.

People on Twitter had things to say like, “Kamala THEE Harris,” and “Queen,” and also “not all Timbs are good Timbs,” but there was enough chatter about her footwear choice that “Timbs” was trending for a good chunk of the morning. And just like that, Harris made a news moment out of a five second Twitter reel. Your move, Mike Pence. 

I’ll be frank: I have no intel as to whether or not Kamala picked up a pair of crispy new Timbs simply for the photo opp or if she has been a lifelong wearer of the iconic boot. (She was spotted in this pair back in 2019, though.) But she knew what she was doing when she put them on; the move was calculated, because nothing in 2020 ever isn’t, and for all intents and purposes, it "worked," igniting a conversation. 

 Fashion diplomacy of the 21st century was ushered forth by Michelle Obama, who became an icon the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009. Her position as first lady coincided with the rise of the social media age, when both political reporters and fashion reporters began writing daily — often on Twitter — about her looks. Obama has spoken at length about how irked she felt by the fact that the work she was doing in East Wing was often being overshadowed by analyses of her outfits. So she began putting her clothes to work, hiring a stylist to research designers whose background complemented the moment, for example, her dinner with the Italian president, when she wore Versace. She was also known for championing young American designers whose messages she approved of, including Christian Siriano and Jason Wu, and her mid-tier choices from brands like J. Crew sparked sales. In the words of Robin Givhan, who wrote a book on Obama’s contribution to fashion, “Our choice of attire is a measure of our respect for those around us and our own personal dignity. And in the largely symbolic role of first lady, Obama turned fashion into an especially eloquent form of communication.”

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Michelle didn’t invent the concept of fashion-as-political tool (Jackie O. famously revamped the image of a modern first lady, with a little help from Chanel), but while she was in the White House, she certainly took the concept to an entirely new level, one that has since been emulated by women in public-facing positions of power like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Meghan Markle, and Kate Middleton, whose wardrobes are constantly evaluated for their “hidden meanings.”  

Melania Trump did not share Obama’s ethos. Though she chose a vintage-inspired Ralph Lauren powder blue ensemble for inauguration day, in her White House portrait she is wearing the controversial Italian fashion house, Dolce & Gabbana. Over the past four years, she has gravitated toward European fashion houses for her everyday wardrobe, oftentimes over American designers. Of course, there was that Zara jacket, which was both a perplexing departure from her favored couture fashions and a completely inappropriate statement piece.

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And then there are Melania’s shoes, which seem to always be the subject of debate. In 2017, the first lady was derided for wearing designer stiletto heels while boarding a plane to Houston, where she and the president would be visiting with the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Photographs of Melania traipsing through the rain alongside the president, who was in a full raincoat and rain boots, went viral for her “out of touch” look. Though she had swapped her stilettos for white sneakers by the time she touched down in Texas, the damage had been done. 

For a family as obsessed with cultivating an image as the Trumps, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be aware of the optics — that somehow, no one on her the team told Melania, “Hey, a lot of these people you’re about to visit have just lost everything they have. Maybe now’s not the time for the flashy $700 stilettos.” There seemed to be only one logical conclusion for the missteps: She understood the optics, and she simply didn’t care to change them (or issue an apology or clarification). 

Of course, this isn’t to say that Melania ever looks bad. Save for the jacket, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her in a look that made me wince. Even though gardening in stilettos is completely unpractical and honestly inadvisable, she looks good. Women like Michelle, Kamala, and even Melania, understand that clothing sends a message — whether that message is “I’m cool,” like Harris’s, or “I’m so rich I can afford to dip my Louboutins in some fresh soil,” like Melania’s, there is always an intention.

The criticism that women in politics are unfairly judged by their outward appearance, and specifically their clothing, is a tale as old as time. But even Dr. Jill Biden, our potential future first lady, has proved that an interest in fashion can be used to one's advantage — and footwear, specifically. A stiletto sends a different message than a work boot or a "sensible flat" — just ask Lori Loughlin or Felicity Huffman.

Jill’s flat black Stuart Weitzman boots, embossed with the word “Vote” in silver lettering, is an instant headline. To take it further, one might even speculate that her purple sheath dress symbolizes the unity that has become her husband’s central messaging — the conservative red and liberal blue coming together in harmony, not unlike the purple Ralph Lauren suit that Clinton wore for her concession speech in 2016. 

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The narrative of the 2016 election was that we spent too much time talking about Hilary Clinton’s haircuts and kitten heels (which, by the way, are now very much in again) and not enough about her policies. Spoiler, though: We can do both. 

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Kamala has let her accessories do the talking. Throughout her campaign for the Democratic nomination, the senator has topped her uniform — a dark pantsuit layered over a neutral shell — with pearls. Her more casual looks — denim and a white button down — are paired with Converse sneakers. Both pearls and Converse communicate an understanding of our country’s traditions, old and new. And with her Timbs, Kamala says, “I’m not another stuffy old white guy.” Message received.