"Disrespectful," "poor quality," and "washed-out mess", were some of the comments that the February cover of the Kamala Harris Vogue issue attracted. The comments came not only because of Harris’ choice of wardrobe, but also because of the theme. This negative media attention was unexpected.
The Vice President of the United States was featured in a lengthy profile written by Alexis Okeowo. The controversy centered around the choice of photograph for the Vogue Harris cover in February. The cover page shows Harris wearing a Donald Dean jacket and a pair of Converse sneakers, with a background of her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha! She was part of this sorority while she was at Howard University.
Social media critics took to their handles, and venom was spewed, questioning the choice of footwear for the photoshoot, even though Kamala Harris wore sneakers on her campaign trail. The portrait of her did not go down well and was critiqued for badly representing the first Black and Asian American woman to hold office. In the digital edition, she was wearing a powder blue Michael Kors suit, standing in front of a gold backdrop. Vogue faced a lot of criticism across all its channels for "whitewashing" Harris.
People have always said that the pictures in Vogue of colored people look a little 'whitewashed.’ We could argue that brushing away the skin tone won't erase the skin tone of a person in reality. But it’s awful to think that such biases exist even in the 21st century. The Vice President's team refused to comment on the ongoing debacle.The addition of the pink and green background - that was synonymous with her sorority at Howard College - brought more social media storms. Though, sources say Harris herself chose the background of her sorority. It seems everyone had an issue with this picture - no matter what!
Dame Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, denied that the images were 'whitewashed.' The Vogue team went on to say that the picture reflected Harris' persona. The photograph showed her approachable and authentic nature, and tried to reinforce these qualities as the hallmarks of the Biden-Harris administration.
The photographs caused so much of a stir that Wintour had to stand up and face the backlash. She stepped forward to take responsibility for any previous insensitive portrayals of minorities. This came in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which gripped America amidst the raging pandemic.
The digital lightening of the skin tone to make it appear whiter is called whitewashing. This is a practice that has been followed through the ages. Pictures were often made lighter to match Eurocentric beauty standards. This colonial mindset has ruled the fashion industry for a long time, and unfortunately shows no signs of abating.
Today, however, whitewashing has taken on a different connotation. Looking at the Vogue Harris cover, one could argue that it was indeed whitewashed. Unfortunately, publications and the fashion industry still hold onto archaic ideas about beauty. Although times have changed, the fashion industry is still guilty of perpetuating these unacceptable notions of beauty.
Yes, fashion magazines have indeed been practicing whitening of skin tones when they feature male and female models of color. In 2011, British Vogue was accused of whitening Rihanna’s photograph. The editor denied all claims, but there was a massive public backlash.
Even Elle has been accused of similar bigotry. They blamed it on the then studio lights. Recently, in 2012 Naomi Campbell blamed Hello! magazine for completely changing her skin tone in the London version of the magazine.These instances have been cropping up and gaining momentum in recent times. They show chinks in the armor of the fashion industry. It’s no surprise that the Vogue Harris controversy stirred up so many built-up emotions across the globe. Movements like Black Lives Matter in 2020 show how imperative inclusivity has become in the fashion industry today.
The blame cannot be borne by one company or industry alone. Unfortunately, despite great advances in our way of life, society is rife with nuances and instances of whitewashing the ethnicity of people.
In the case of Kamala Harris, her achievement as America’s first woman of color to be appointed to the position of Vice President was marred by the negative publicity after the cover shoot. As for her choice of clothing, the fashion industry has been trying to showcase diversity and inclusivity in clothing. Whether she chose to wear sneakers or was advised to wear them, is anyone’s guess. But it seems the fashion industry has a long way to go before it can be classified as truly inclusive, representative and diverse.