Traditional Indian garment can unify a diverse nation, project a new America, say fashion designers.
During her own presidential campaign in 2019, Kamala Harris was once asked if she would commit to wearing the traditional Indian garment to her inauguration if she were elected president.
“Let’s first win,” Harris said, smiling to the person who had posed the question at an event hosted by Asian American group, One APIA Nevada, CNN recalled.
“My mother raised us with a very strong appreciation for our cultural background and pride. Celebrations that we all participate in regardless of how our last name is spelled. It’s the beauty of who we are as a nation,” she said.
The question has regained relevance with the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father set to become the first woman, first Black and first South Asian Vice President on Jan 20.
“The sari, which holds thousands of years of cultural significance within its 6 yards, is ubiquitous in India, where Harris’ mother lived before immigrating to the US,” CNN noted.
“With the world watching, wearing one could be a powerful symbol of how the Biden-Harris administration intends to lead America and better represent minorities,” it said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see her show up to the inauguration ball in a beautifully woven Banarsi sari,” fashion designer Bibhu Mohapatra told the news channel in a phone interview from Brunswick, Georgia. “I think she understands the power of that image.”
A photograph of a young Harris sitting on a couch in a sari with her Indian grandparents has already been widely shared on social media. For Mohapatra, who was born and raised in Odisha, India, seeing the picture had a profound impact, CNN said.
“It immediately brought to me an instant connection to my South Asian roots,” he was quoted as saying. “I’ve always seen (Harris) as a strong person with a dynamic career.
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“I’d known of her accomplishments and the contributions she has made to our nation, but that image of her in a sari made her familiar to me. I felt like she could be a part of my family, or a good friend, talking to me in my kitchen.”
With the incoming administration facing the Herculean task of unifying the country, Harris could use the garment as a healing gesture, Mohapatra said.
“A lack of knowledge and fear is the key to distrust. If one never sees anyone who looks different than them, it’s basic human nature to feel threatened by what is alien. It’s more crucial now than ever that she makes (her heritage) familiar and uses it as a tool to bring people together.”
Harris has already demonstrated a willingness to use her platform to make sartorial statements, CNN said noting she wore a white pantsuit and pussy bow blouse referencing the suffrage movement for her first public address as Vice President-elect in November
Harris’ historic win also resonated deeply with the Nepalese American designer Prabal Gurung, who designed the statement-making pantsuit then-Senator Harris wore to accept the nomination for Vice President at the Democratic National Convention.
“As a minority, you grow up and don’t see many people in the media, entertainment, or positions of power that look like you,” he told CNN in an email interview.
“(Her win) means that women and marginalized people can now look to the highest office in the country, and see someone that looks like them. It opens up the door for so many to dream the biggest they can and know that it is possible to attain it.”
Like Mohapatra, Gurung said the photograph of Harris in a sari evoked a powerful personal response.
“It makes me think of my mother, sisters, nieces, and all the women in my family — of power in the matriarchy,” he was quoted as saying.
“I see that photo and am reminded that it is women, and particularly women of color, who will lead the way towards a more just and equitable future. It gives me hope.”
Beyond America’s shores, it would signal a more globally-minded administration to the rest of the world, designer Naeem Khan, who dressed First Lady Michelle Obama 28 times during her tenure at the White House, told CNN.
Harris could also, Khan added, employ her heritage as a form of diplomacy as well. “Having Vice President Harris in the White House changes the whole point of view,” he was quoted as saying in a phone interview.
“She’s half South Asian. I feel that opens up things globally, because Pakistan, India, Bangladesh….those countries are going to look at America in a whole different way.”
Harris, like Obama, may leverage the public’s fixation on her to bring attention to the work of designers from diverse backgrounds and cultures — not just those sharing her Indian and Jamaican roots, but labels from across America.
“(Obama) liked a twist in fashion coming from a different background, and it was signifying that America is multicultural,” said Khan. “I think Kamala Harris is going to be conscious about that as well — about the different cultures of our country.”
For now, however, expecting eyes wait for Jan 20, CNN said. “The photo of a youthful, smiling Harris in a sari was, to many, inspiring. An image of her in a sari on inauguration day could be groundbreaking.”