With Donald Trump’s boycott, concerns about Covid-19, the threat of armed demonstrations and calls for violence after the Capitol Hill siege, next week’s presidential inauguration will be like no other.
Given the multitude of security issues and logistical imponderables, the question of what Kamala Harris will wear on Wednesday may seem frivolous.
But for some Asian Americans, the prospect of seeing the country’s first black and South Asian vice president wearing a traditional sari at one of the inauguration events – even if the festivities are largely virtual – was a glimmer of positivity amid the noise.
The question has already been posed to Harris, during his own 2019 presidential campaign. At an event organized by the American-Asian group One APIA Nevada, an audience member casually asked Harris if she would commit to wearing traditional Indian clothing for her nomination as president-elect. Let’s win first, Harris says with a smile. My mother raised us with a great appreciation for our cultural background and pride. Celebrations we all participate in, regardless of the spelling of our family name. That’s the beauty of who we are as a nation.
Now, more than ever, it is important to her to spread the word (her legacy) and use it as a means of bringing people together.
Bibhu Mohapatra, fashion designer
Young Kamala Harris in a family photo wearing a sari (left to right). Credit: Courtesy of Charada Balachandran Orihuela
The sari, whose 6-foot border has had cultural significance for thousands of years, is ubiquitous in India, where Harris’s mother lived before emigrating to the United States. Given the global attention, wearing this clothing could be a powerful symbol of how the Biden-Harris administration wants to lead America and better represent minorities.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw her at the inaugural ball in a beautifully woven Banarsi sari, designer Bibhu Mohapatra said in a phone interview from Brunswick, Georgia. I think she understands the power of that image.
While this is all speculation at the moment, and it’s not certain that the traditional ball will ever happen, Harris has already shown that he’s willing to use his platform to make clothing claims. In her first public appearance as vice president-elect in November, she deliberately winked at the women who paved the way for her historic victory. Her white pants and bow tie reference the suffragette movement that fought for women’s suffrage and recall the generations of pioneering female politicians who preceded her.
We have already seen the new vice president, who also has Jamaican roots, in a sari. A photo of young Harris sitting on a sofa in a sari with her Indian grandparents has already taken the social media limelight. For Mohapatra, born and raised in Odisha, India, seeing this painting had a profound effect.
It immediately brought me closer to my South Asian roots, he said. I’ve always seen (Harris) as a strong person with a dynamic career. I was aware of her achievements and the contribution she made to our nation, but this photo of her in a sari made her known. I felt like she could be a part of my family or a good friend talking to me in the kitchen.
According to Mohapatra, Harris could use the garment as a healing gesture as a new government faces the daunting task of unifying the country.
Lack of knowledge and fear are the keys to mistrust. If you never see anyone who looks different, it is human nature to feel threatened by what is strange. Now, more than ever, it is important to her to spread the word (her legacy) and use it as a means of bringing people together.
The fashion show at New York Fashion Week in September 2019. Credit: Mike Coppola/Getty Images
The designer Prabal Gurung, whose clothes Harris wore, is no stranger to political fashion or its use as a tool of soft power. At New York Fashion Week in September 2019, he used his 10th anniversary runway show to explore issues of identity and belonging in America, sending models down the runway with scarves that read: Who gets to be American?
Harris’ historic wine finds a deep resonance with the Nepali-American designer.
As a minority, you grow up without seeing many people in the media, entertainment or positions of power who look like you, he said in an email interview. (His victory) means that women and marginalized people can now expect to hold the highest office in the land and see someone like them. This opens the door for many people to dream as much as they can and know that it is possible.
Like Mohapatra, Gurung also said that the above photo of Harris in a sari had provoked a strong personal reaction. It reminds me of my mother, my sisters, my cousins and all the women in my family – the power in the matriarchy, he says. I see this image and I remember that it is women, especially women of color, who will pave the way for a more just and egalitarian future. It gives me hope.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks after President-elect Joe Biden announced foreign policy and national security appointments at the Queen’s Theatre on the 24th. November 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Credit: Mark Makela/Getty Images
Beyond American borders, it would mean a more globalized administration for the rest of the world, according to designer Naeem Khan, who dressed first lady Michelle Obama 28 times during her time in the White House. Harris could also, Khan said, use his legacy as a form of diplomacy.
Vice President Harris’ presence in the White House changes the whole perspective, he said in a telephone interview. She’s half South Asian. I think it opens things up globally because Pakistan, India, Bangladesh….. These countries will look at America with very different eyes.
Harris, like Obama, can use the public’s obsession to draw attention to the work of designers from different countries and cultures – not just those who share his Indian and Jamaican roots, but also labels from across America.
(Obama) loved the fashion shift that came from a different context, and that meant America was multicultural, Khan said. I think Kamala Harris will be aware of that as well – about the different cultures in our country.
But in the meantime, on the 20th. January is a real eye-opener for you. The photo of a young Harris smiling in a sari was an inspiration to many. His picture on the sari on opening day could be revolutionary.
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