It was an opportunity ripe for Vogue to create magic. The fashion bible, known for creating exceptional imagery, will feature Kamala Harris on the cover as the star of its upcoming issue, just as Harris is about to become the first female vice president of the US—and the first woman of color—when she’s sworn in this month. Vogue had all the ingredients to produce a stunning and historic cover.
But when an image of the cover leaked online over the weekend, the general consensus was that Vogue fell short. Very short.
While there’s nothing explicitly wrong with the image, the feeling among its detractors was that it didn’t do the moment or its protagonist justice. Many on social media turned into amateur critics as they picked it apart, opining that the lighting was bad and the photograph underwhelming. Actual one-time fashion critic Robin Givhan of the Washington Post, now a senior critic-at-large, described it as lacking authority and grandeur, and consequently failing to give Harris her due respect. The Associated Press also reports the image chosen is not the one Harris’s team expected and that it expressed its disappointment to Vogue.
The episode highlights the delicate balance female politicians face in appearing on magazine covers, and in how those covers ultimately come together. Fashion magazines such as Vogue have a long history of including political figures in their pages. The magazines get exclusive content and the politician may use the opportunity to make themselves relatable or portray a different side of themselves, at least in the text.
But because the photography in fashion magazines tends toward glossy fantasy, politicians can run the risk of seeming haughty and elitist. Last October, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York received criticism for appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair in clothes estimated to cost $14,000. Ocasio-Cortez responded by pointing out that, as typically happens in such shoots, the clothes were borrowed and not hers.
For her Vogue cover, Harris chose her own clothes, according to Vogue’s story on the photoshoot, including a Donald Deal blazer and Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers, which were a favorite of hers on the campaign trail. Her stance is straight-forward and relaxed. A spokesperson for the magazine said in an emailed statement that the team behind the shoot felt the informal image reflected Harris’s authentic and approachable nature. The backdrop of pink and green refers to the official colors of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the first historically Black sorority, which Harris was a member of during her years at Howard University. Tyler Mitchell, the first Black American to shoot a Vogue cover and who earned praise for portraits of figures such as Beyoncé—shot the image. Mitchell also shot the Vanity Fair cover of Ocasio-Cortez.
Vogue produced another image as well of Harris in a powder blue Michael Kors suit standing before a golden background. Harris’s team reportedly expected that to be the cover of the print magazine.
Vogue says it’s treating both images as covers digitally, though only the other image will appear on the cover of its print issues, and that’s the one that will be distributed around the US and become a keepsake.