If there was a star out of this sprawling field of diverse candidates, it was arguably Sen. Kamala Harris: the lady in black.
Or perhaps it was midnight or ink. Farrow and Ball would call it “railings” — a soft black with blue undertones. The senator’s communications director says Harris was wearing navy. It registered as black. It registered as one of the California Democrat’s familiar somber suits — this time worn with a black, or railings-colored, shirt. Her body disappeared. She was a talking head, a prosecutorial brain, a sharp tongue and piercing eyes. It’s rare to see a national politician go so dark, so monochromatic, so big city. We are used to women — whether on Capitol Hill or on the campaign trail — dressing in bright, searing colors. Happy hues. Patriotic ones. Seeing a woman wearing what so many nonpolitical, professional women wear on a regular basis is both jarring and compelling.
Black. It’s the color that always sells. Customers are excited by the yellow dress, the pink jacket. But when it comes time to spend money, they go with black. It’s practical. It’s versatile. It’s always appropriate. It lasts.
Harris’s monochromatic ensemble exuded sophistication and authority. It looked great, but it also looked like clothing rather than TV-appropriate wardrobing. The stylistic choice echoed the uniform worn by most of the men, which is to say that the color should have neutralized her attire as a topic of extended conversation. But it did not. And that’s a good thing — because her decision to dress so soberly, like some bold warrior, only underscored her message that she was ready for the good fight. Her style was deadly serious, and so was she.
Often when she speaks to audiences, she does so with her face frozen into a smile even as she is guiding folks through a serious discussion on any number of topics: prescription drugs, taxes. On the debate stage Thursday night, she mostly did not smile. She was tenacious and forceful and serious. There was little sunshine in her words. There were no shades of gray.
She had a big moment on the debate stage when she took former vice president Joe Biden to task for his opposition to school busing back in the 1970s. She began her offensive by muscling her way past moderator Chuck Todd with these words: “As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race. …” She expressed her disappointment and anger with Biden’s stance, and then she got personal, describing herself as a little girl in California who was bused to school.
In her emotional telling of the story, there was a sense of grief over some innocence that was lost, and her clothes took on a mournful tone. Clothes are like that. Our sense of what they represent shifts with the setting and the context.
The other women — how groundbreaking to be able to say that — stayed true to the stylistic codes that have come before them and that they’ve drawn up for themselves. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wore a power dress in navy. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard were like reverse images: the former wore a red shirt under her black blazer, the latter wore a black shirt under her red jacket.
And Marianne Williamson, who writes books about spirituality and love, who is forever searching for the underlying causes of our social woes, who implores us to look inward to find our moral center, wore a suit in pale gray — the color of moonlight on a rainy night. “I’m going to harness love for political purposes,” Williamson said.
Bring on the love, Marianne. It certainly can’t hurt the situation.
The candidates’ clothing choices spoke to who they are in this moment — not in their hearts and souls, but in their image-making, in their political narrative. A debate is all about persuasion and theater, so their costumes underscored the persona they are selling to America.
The men made the most obvious, heavy-handed use of fashion. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has positioned himself as the tech candidate, leaned into the stylistic cliche of the tech world. He went tieless. He knew he’d stand out for what had gone missing in his attire. How could he not? This back-of-the-packer with his universal basic income pitch made sure he got noticed the moment he walked to the lectern.
Yang dressed in the informal vernacular of the disrupter. In the realm of Silicon Valley, where tech entrepreneurs wear luxury T-shirts and hoodies as their business uniform, the lack of tie was a modest nod to subversiveness. But in politics, on a formal debate stage, the move was practically heresy.
Yang celebrated the stereotypes of a tech bro. And with his lack of affect, with his head tilted slightly upward as he offered up his nonanswers to questions, he came across like the founder of a start-up aiming to rustle up venture capital through sheer pomposity.
America, this is what the Democratic Party offers you. Take a look at this crowded buffet of ambition and feistiness. It’s helpful to be a woman, or black, or Latino or Asian or — in the case of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, 6 feet 5 inches tall. At least you have a visual edge — something that prevents you from getting lost in the pack. A host of medium-size white men are struggling to distinguish themselves. They’re not just having a hard time articulating their policy positions in any memorable way: Is Jay Inslee the environmental candidate or the gun control one? They’re having a difficult time simply making an impression: Which one is John Delaney again? No, wait, that’s Michael Bennet.
On Wednesday night, the men mostly wore the traditional political uniform: dark suit, blue tie. Sen. Cory Booker — black guy, bald head — wore a red four-in-hand. Inslee, the governor of Washington, wore a pine green tie — Oh, he’s the climate change guy!
Rep. Eric Swalwell is the gun control candidate. He was onstage Thursday night and made his convictions clear with his bright orange tie, which matched the orange gun-violence awareness ribbon pinned to his lapel.
For those candidates at the top of the polls, the clothing was more backdrop than identifying feature. It was an echo of a message that has begun to break through the cacophony. Sen. Elizabeth Warren occupied center stage on her night of nights wearing a bright purple jacket over her usual aerodynamic underpinnings. No necklaces jangled around her neck. She was polished but unencumbered — ready to throw elbows if necessary. Sen. Bernie Sanders looked about as well-tailored and groomed as he ever has. Perhaps with so many of the other candidates snuggled up over in the progressive corner of the party, he can no longer comfortably dress like the absent-minded professor who lost his comb because Warren is an actual former professor who is sharp and focused and seems to remember pretty much everything. This election season, voters can have progressive politics without the side of gruff dishevelment.
As Biden — dark suit, blue-striped tie — might say, “Folks, Mayor Pete put on a jacket.” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, typically wears a crisp white dress shirt and a blue tie. It’s the political uniform that says I’m-getting-down-to-work. It’s what he wore during the recent South Bend town hall where angry residents demanded action and answers after a white police officer shot and killed a black man in their city.
But Thursday evening, Buttigieg was in the full power kit. The adherence to protocol was a reminder that when all the groundbreaking sizzle is set aside — He’s only 37! He’s gay! He speaks Norwegian! — he’s a Middle American traditionalist with a Boy Scout haircut.
Sometimes, the more clothing a candidate puts on, the more about him that’s revealed.