Being the first to do something is a feat; it makes the accomplishment that much greater. For Vice President Kamala Harris, being a “first” can be considered one of her specialties.
She is the first South Asian American senator in U.S. history, the first African American and South Asian American vice president in U.S. history and the first female vice president in U.S. history. Another topic in the recent discourse, however, is that she is the first politician to wear Chuck Taylors in the West Wing, boldly reinvigorating traditional political dress.
To Harris, a sense of purpose and the means to accomplish it is epitomized by her Converse All Stars. In October 2020, Harris famously showcased her embellished white high-tops with badges pinned to the sides of her trainers. The messages included “Black Joy,” “Stop Hate” and “Love 2020,” nodding to the feelings of those in attendance to her Florida rally and the millions back home suffering from the loss of American lives as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as acts of racial injustice.
Throughout her grueling campaign, Harris stood wearing her self-titled “power pearls” and sneakers, confident that her political initiatives would soon take full stride. Yet the critics fixating on her clothing choices rather than policy proposals, assailing her style as distracting and trivial, make her Chuck Taylors all the more meaningful. Talking about her shoe choice is neither sexist nor distracting; it is instead a recognition of the sexism and judgment she pledges to overcome.
Female politicians’ wardrobes have been a frequent topic of discussion and scrutiny, and are one thing that their male counterparts usually avoid press coverage about. While First Lady Jackie Kennedy was idolized for her iconic hats and colored sets, Michelle Obama was criticized for her inexpensive gowns and exposed arms. Whether praising or condemning, there is an inescapable gaze and assessment of women in politics’ physical appearance.
Glass ceilings and the chains of fashion expectations are there for us to smash. Small acts of rebellion recognized by our nation’s biggest figures turn the initial fracture into a successful breakage of these confinements. Harris’s shoes do matter, and what they represent is why she was elected as another “first.”
They are not the traditional high heels common of a politician. They are not meant for presentation or special occasions. They are a new symbol. They are meant for action, productivity and doing. Although a pair of sneakers does not seem revolutionary at first glance, they are.
The beauty of Chuck Taylors is that they evoke an authentic feel because they’re affordable sneakers etched in American history: a canvas sole with a rubber base, worn from the early 20th century until the modern-day. Converse sneakers were even exempt from the rubber rationing during World War II, as the American people viewed the iconic shoes as a central component to the American identity and protested against the ration. The growing influence of television and celebrity endorsements beginning in the 1950s was responsible for creating new sneaker archetypes: the athlete, the celebrity and the rebel without a cause.
Despite the famed sneaker’s shift in audience, its origin remains rooted in youth culture that has now moved to the mainstream. When speaking in an interview, Harris notes that “Chucks — whatever your background is, whatever language your grandmother spoke — you know, we all at some point or another had our Chucks.” Shedding light on American culture, Kamala Harris’s feet are firmly planted in our nation’s history.
I myself own a pair of high-top Chuck Taylors and wear them frequently on campus. Prior to this year, I had not been aware of their history, nor that the shoes I had bought as a fashion statement would now be looked at as a part of a political revolution. Their significance is not limited to Election Day but instead applies to anyone seeking to be a “first” in their school, community or country.
Adam Cohn, vice president of global brand design for Converse, shares, “The star chevron has been in use since the ’70s and we wanted to make it a major part of our identity — that part of the brief was clear: Let’s leverage an icon that’s part of our heritage that’s also representative of moving forward.”
Moving forward is representative of all genders, races, beliefs and orientations, of which Kamala Harris is the exemplar. It is time to lace up.
Julia Maloney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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