Kamala Harris’s nomination as Joe Biden’s running mate is historic: the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, she is the first woman of colour to be on a major party’s presidential ticket. She is also the first to prominently wear sneakers on the campaign trail.
It is a small sartorial detail, but it is linked to the larger cultural moment in which we live. “Sneakers are a form of footwear finding their way into many women’s closets as part of a larger challenge to outmoded concepts of femininity,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, the author of Sneaker X Culture: Collab. Traditionally, there is a standard shoe etiquette for women in political office – either alpha (see: Nancy Pelosi’s stilettos, Theresa May’s leopard print heels) or conservative (Elizabeth Warren’s slide sandals, Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit-matching kitten heels). Semmelhack believes Harris’s shoes signal action. “The sneakers are acting as the sartorial equivalent of being willing to roll up her sleeves,” she says. They suggest Harris “is a woman of action”.
Harris’s preference for non-traditional footwear was first seen last year when she was a Democratic presidential hopeful, and appeared in Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars. As she told The Cut: “I run through airports in my Converse sneakers. I have a whole collection of Chuck Taylors: a black leather pair, a white pair, I have the kind that don’t lace, the kind that do lace, the kind I wear in the hot weather, the kind I wear in the cold weather, and the platform kind for when I’m wearing a pantsuit.”
Ever since James Dean wore his, Converse has become the go-to shoe for the rebellious and the outcasts. “Chuck Taylors have a long history of being used to convey ideas of authenticity rather than hype,” says Semmelhack. Fans have included Andy Warhol, the Ramones, Karl Lagerfeld and Kurt Cobain.
Nick Engvall, the founder of Sneaker History, thinks Harris’s choice of sneakers rather than the traditional business attire worn by politicians on the campaign trail could mean she will “appeal to others like myself who feel it makes her more authentic or normal”. Jeff Carvalho, the co-founder of Streetwear website Highsnobiety, thinks they will “help her connect not only to a younger audience but also to the important Gen X crowd”.
Culturally, they are also “a quintessentially American sneaker,” says Semmelhack. But Harris’s US is in contrast to Donald Trump’s blindingly white one, and she is making a statement about the country she represents. A biracial woman whose parents met while protesting for civil rights in Oakland in the 60s, Harris is stepping into a political landscape where, for example, 90% of the Senate is white. As Bobbito Garcia wrote in Out of The Box: “The progenitors of sneaker culture were predominantly … kids of colour who grew up in a depressed economic era.”
Carvalho thinks the type of sneaker Harris chose is also important. “If she was to put on a pair of Yeezys, we’d be having a different discussion,” he says.