Why a woman leader in sneakers is empowering

Clad in casual black jacket and ankle-length trousers donning the ubiquitous Converse sneakers, she looks as if she has been caught on her way out for an errand.

By Ambica Sachin

Published: Wed 13 Jan 2021, 8:39 PM

Comfort dressing, as opposed to power dressing, is key to getting ahead in life — be it in the corporate field or the aisles of a crowded supermarket, as far as I’m concerned. The image of Margaret Thatcher dressed in her Sunday best, feet clad in customary black pumps, waiting to embark on a stag hunt with Queen Elizabeth at Balmoral in Season 4 of The Crown is one that has befuddled me. Here was an ‘Iron Lady’ credited with changing the fortunes of Britain during the nation’s most testing times. But yet one who, when called upon to take part in a Highland romp, turns up in the wrong footwear?

The recent controversy over Vogue’s cover image of Kamala Harris, ahead of her swearing-in ceremony as the first female and first Black and South Asian-origin Vice-President of the United States of America has taken social media by storm.

Clad in casual black jacket and ankle-length trousers donning the ubiquitous Converse sneakers, she looks as if she has been caught on her way out for an errand. The setting and the lighting in particular make it appear like a rushed, off the cuff, fashion shoot setup whereby not much effort was taken to showcase the vice-president elect as a woman of reckoning. Social media has been abuzz with comments from those who feel the fashion magazine helmed by Anna Wintour, has done sartorial disservice to an inspirational political leader on the cusp of achieving greater good for women in power.

The manner in which they reacted is symbolic of a women-have-each-other’s-back sorority culture that is the need of the hour. It’s noteworthy to point out that Harris’ getup is not the issue here, but the irreverential manner in which the cover has been treated along with accusations of ‘lightening’ her skin tone. Interestingly, the February cover of Vogue was shot by Tyler Mitchell, the first African-American photographer to be featured on a Vogue US cover when he shot Beyonce in 2018.

The backlash has been so viral that Wintour herself was forced to issue a clarification. Faced with criticism for showing utter disrespect to a seminal Black woman, Wintour has been succinct. Did she and her team get too chummy with a woman who should have been portrayed in a more respectful manner with better lighting? “All of us felt very, very strongly that the less formal portrait of the vice-president-elect really reflected the moment that we were living in,” said Ms Wintour. “We felt to reflect this tragic moment in global history, a much less formal picture...really reflected the hallmark of the Biden/Harris campaign and everything they were trying to — and I’m sure they will — achieve,” the editor added.

Magazine covers, especially when they belong to a venerated publication like the Vogue, is held up to a high standard — they are often our window to the world of power dressing, one of privilege more often, but equally one of opportunity and aspiration. And disrespecting a power player whose every move is being watched and emulated by thousands of impressionable young minds around the world should not be condoned.

Contrast this with Vogue’s January cover, which featured the fierce and fabulous three-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka, the latest brand ambassador of French luxury house Louis Vuitton. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, the cover celebrates the Japanese-American tennis champion’s unabashed style and pays homage to a woman who is a role model to many for embracing her ethnic heritage and her unapologetic political activism.

Fashion has been used as a tool for political engagement over the years and the sight of Harris in her ‘power suit’ ready to hit the ground running is a potent imagery.

The whole look and feel of the cover might not have done justice to a woman such as Harris, but let’s not forget when the going gets tough, it’s often the ones who can run ahead of the herd to pave the way, who can be true ambassadors of change.

And while there is absolutely nothing wrong in a woman leading the way in her stilettos, I find the sight of a political leader in sneakers empowering; a sign of a truly fearless woman who is ready to hit the ground running. And that’s the kind of leader we need to be rooting for.

— ambica@khaleejtimes.com

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