Biden and Harris: Pocket squares and pearls convey a stylish team's message

Robin Givhan
Washington Post

From the very beginning, despite their differences, they looked like a team.

When presidential candidate Joe Biden announced that Sen. Kamala Harris of California would be his running mate, the two stood together onstage at a Wilmington, Del., high school and made their pitch to the American people, talking about their shared purpose and their vision of the future. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there was no crowd of supporters and no celebratory balloon drop, yet the moment still crackled with excitement because Biden's choice marked the first time a Black woman and a woman of Asian descent would be nominated by a major party.

They are opposites, a man and a woman from different generations and different sides of the country. A daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. A son of Irish Catholics. But their visual story placed them on common ground.

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris: white pocket square for him, pearls for her.

In the images from that day, neither Harris nor Biden is wearing anything unusual or flamboyantly symbolic. Harris didn't don a white suit in homage to the women's suffrage movement. She dressed in her usual work style of dark neutrals and simple lines. In the pictures, she doesn't look stiffly styled or glamorously made-over for her debut as a vice-presidential candidate. Her clothes do not look like they've been pulled fresh from a shopping bag. He, however, looked particularly spit-shined.

The two politicians walked onstage together in their blue suits and white shirts. Their visual message was clear: They are partners. And with all of that blue, it was also clear that they are Democrats.

Throughout the campaign and through the transition, each of them has told their individual story through their attire, while always remaining in harmony. They dress with care but not flash. He has his aviators; she has her Converse sneakers. He finishes his ensembles with a pocket square. She opts for pearls. Their clothes matter - equally - because they draw us in. Their clothes matter because they help to cement an image in our mind. The clothes matter because they encapsulate this moment in time.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris sports Converse high-tops. M

The president-elect dresses with attention to detail, with an eye toward tradition and decorum, but with an air of modernity.

"His suits are sharper, his tie length is correct," says New York-based stylist Brian Coats, who works with a host of male athletes, celebrities and boldface names. "He makes a tri-fold pocket square look cool and he can rock Ray-Bans like Tom Cruise in 'Top Gun.'"

The pocket square and the Ray-Ban aviators are his twin signatures. The sunglasses are timeless American cool - around since the 1930s. The glasses are so iconic that they outshine any celebrity endorser. Even though the brand is now part of the Italian eyewear conglomerate Luxottica, they remain emblematic of a heroic American machoism. A nontoxic variety.

The pocket square is always white. It's always folded neatly into three peaks. "His pocket square is sharp without being over-the-top or showy," says stylist Ilaria Urbinati, who has helped the men of Hollywood be their best selves on the red carpet and who recently launched a men's lifestyle website called Leo.

The pocket square is classic and old school and reminiscent of something that one might see on a gentleman in the 1950s, when getting dressed for the day required a certain rigor and discipline that today might simply be called making an effort.

Biden's pocket square isn't a fashion flourish. It's not a shrill exclamation point. It's worn with the precision of a uniform and it makes his suit just a touch more formal. The pocket square is a way of decorously grabbing attention without ever raising your voice and is an apt metaphor for Biden's entire campaign.

His overall style is distinctly American and, as one would expect from someone who grew up in Pennsylvania and Delaware, rooted in an East Coast sensibility. The suits are precise, which is a rarity among politicians.

"His suits are all very well tailored. The no break in the slim trouser leg makes a big difference. The tie and lapels are all in proportion to each other. More often than not, politicians have a lot of puddling at the hem, their ties are very wide," Urbinati says. "Menswear is in the details and this is usually lost on politicians."

Biden's style isn't stuffy and clubby. He's not sliding about town in custom Belgian slippers. It doesn't reek of the Ivy League and is devoid of old-money cliches. Biden isn't one to indulge in self-consciously wrecked sweaters or threadbare sport jackets, the sort of shabby showmanship used to signify a belief that money is unimportant, which is something only those who have always had overflowing bank accounts have the luxury of saying.

Biden follows the classic rules of menswear, perhaps because there remains a part of him that hasn't fully succumbed to the privileges afforded those with money and rank - chief among them is the privilege of ignoring the rules without repercussions. Biden dresses like a working-class guy who knows that, for better or worse, a good suit can open doors.

He wears Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers, Levi's and Ray-Ban. These companies are this country's fashion standard-bearers despite their financial travails, despite the ebb and flow of trends, despite globalization. Biden wears American.

Harris also has her style signatures, which the public has come to know. The Converse sneakers delighted supporters during the campaign because of their informality and their enduring popularity within the culture. Converse sneakers, founded in Massachusetts in 1908, are deliberately low tech. They've been reimagined and taken up market by the fashion world, but they have always maintained their lovable simplicity.

Harris appears on the February cover of Vogue magazine wearing her modest sneakers. Some observers were keen on the picture, pleased that she looked like an approachable woman who was busy working, rather than one who was simply inhabiting a grand title. That was Vogue's self-described intent. But that point of view was drowned out by a tidal wave of consternation that the informality was ultimately an affront to all that she had accomplished.

"Perception is reality. Image matters," says Andrew Blecher, a corporate and executive communications consultant who previously worked with HBC, the Canadian conglomerate that owns Saks Fifth Avenue.

Harris "can be taken seriously and have style, but every choice made, every interview granted, needs to be viewed through this filter," Blecher says.

Our concept of a madame vice president is surely influenced by the way in which popular culture has depicted high-ranking women - whether "Madame Secretary" or "Veep." In 1992, designer Donna Karan fantasized about what it would look like when a woman was sworn-in as commander in chief. Her musings were the subject of an advertising campaign, "In Woman We Trust," that featured the model Rosemary McGrotha taking the oath of office. Along the way, Karan created "seven easy pieces" - a kind of mix-and-match mini-wardrobe for working women. She made business suits for Bill Clinton and dressed Hillary Clinton, too. Karan's sensual suiting created a template for women's professional dress that was tailored but soft, authoritative but sensual, and most important, comfortable.

Harris's rise, and her style, represent the closest the country has come to the vision Karan imagined.

"I don't want to say, 'I told you so,'" Karan says. But, in fact, she did.

"I had expected it earlier," Karan says of this barrier-breaking occasion. "I thought it would be Hillary (Clinton) for sure."

In Karan's version of the swearing-in, the model dresses in urbane neutrals rather than the bright jewel tones that have long been the distinctive purview of female politicians. She is unapologetically confident and feminine.

Harris is Karan's dream - almost. She is a hair's breadth from the Oval Office. "I think she's divine," Karan says of the vice president-elect. "I think she's definitively a woman who's elegant. And I respect her regard for the president and the people and her experience."

"I think she has all the aspects of what leadership is about," Karan says. "I don't think her ego is about me, me, me. It's we."

Fashion imagined the day, now Harris is inspiring fashion. She has already worn suits by American designers Prabal Gurung and Carolina Herrera's Wes Gordon. She wears a Michael Kors suit in Vogue. She's also worn Altuzarra. And she was one of a handful of legislators, along with Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who influenced recent collections by New York-based designer Gabriela Hearst.

"There's a way that women with power and authority like to dress, and it's a really thin balance between feeling comfortable in what they're wearing and feeling beautiful," Hearst says. "At the end of the day, all assets count, right?"

"Beauty is a tool to attract," Hearst says. "I do think that owning that femininity is part of who we are."

When Biden and Harris are sworn in, Hearst expects to get emotional. She grew up in Uruguay and recently became an American citizen. She's acutely aware of the fragility of democracy and the enormity of what the country faces. But she is hopeful.

"Man does (Biden) have his work cut out," Hearst says. "But I think he's definitely putting himself with very capable people."

He has a good team, Hearst says. And his partner in leadership remains a source of inspiration.