What happens when the most powerful white woman in the fashion world meets a black woman who will this week become one of the most powerful women in the world? The former shows the latter who’s the boss, of course.
The controversial Vogue cover photo of Kamala Harris, who is about to be sworn in as Vice President of the United States, is much more than a lesson in fashion. In fact, it constitutes a rare occasion in which one can get such a revealing X-ray view of the workings of image-making in the world of fashion. This is mainly a reminder and a warning about what awaits a black woman in places where she has never set foot.
A brief overview of the affair that made waves worldwide includes facts that are not disputed: Harris was invited to appear on the cover of the February issue of the American edition of Vogue, the most influential fashion magazine in the world. The (informal) photo chosen raised a furor as soon as it appeared, with the claim that “the cover did not give Kamala D, Harris due respect,” as described by the Washington Post’s fashion critic, who added that this was not surprising, coming from Vogue.
Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour understood the damage done and released an online cover page (a shelved version?) in which Harris appears, arms crossed, in a tailored suit that gives her a much more authoritative look. Wintour explained in regard to the controversial cover that “it was absolutely not our intention to, in any way, diminish the importance of the vice-president-elect’s incredible victory.” But looking at the image makes one wonder about this statement.
The image that was chosen for the print-edition cover was described by Vogue as an homage to the African-American sorority to which Harris belonged in her student days, Alpha Kappa Alpha, with its green and reddish-pink colors. Harris is seen standing with a background of drapes in these colors, which dominate the composition, wearing All-Star shoes that have become her trademark. An art-loving viewer cannot avoid being reminded of one of the most famous portraits ever made of a powerful man, that of Pope Julius II, painted by Rafael around 1511. With the green-draped backdrop and the pope’s red robe, the portrait became a model for how authoritative leaders have been presented for the last 500 years.
The powerful head of the church (called in his lifetime the “terrible pope”) was painted in a precise, meticulous manner, to which Rafael added a touch of contemplation and vulnerable humanity in the subject. Anna Wintour and her photographer Tyler Mitchell deliberately unraveled the dignified decorum of a ceremonial representation. It wasn’t just the All-Star shoes; it was also the rumpled red cloth cast on the floor. The festive portrait meant to celebrate Harris’ assumption of her new role became one showing a mundane look, bordering on sloppy. The pope and his elegant drapes ended up as a woman in sports shoes, with a crumpled cloth devoid of any elegance.
The art historian Vasari wrote that Rafael’s portrait of Julius II caused anyone viewing it to shiver, so great was Rafael’s skill and so great the terror imposed by the pope on his surroundings. It turns out that in the United States of 2020, even when the most senior politician comes to have a portrait taken, staged by Anna Wintour, the one expected to shiver is still Harris. An important lesson, one moment before the first female vice-president in history enters the oh-so-White House left behind by Donald Trump.