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We need to talk about style… or do we?

As Vice-President Kamala Harris prepares to take office, Louise Palfreyman asks whether fashion commentary is necessary for women in politics

A style piece on the lipstick choice of America’s new vice president has prompted a huge backlash on Twitter…

“Why Kamala Harris is the modern beauty icon the world needs” is perhaps not the headline any woman needed so soon after such a monumental victory. And it wasn’t long before the Telegraph’s fashion coverage was ripped apart on Twitter.

Women objected to the fact that Harris’s achievement as a woman of colour was being reduced to analysis of her clothes and make-up.

It could be argued that the journalist behind the piece was merely fulfilling her brief when she wrote about Harris’s “strong relatable image”, how “wearing make-up has become more of a power move than ever before”, and how “strength actually lies in a soft and subtle approach”.

But there’s a time and a place.

Prominent novelist Kit de Waal tweeted, “look at this shit”, and later added: “I think the thing that I object to is that on a historic day when a woman, a black woman from two minority communities who has had to work so hard to get into one of the most powerful positions in the world, on the same day, before we’ve had a chance to fully absorb just how momentous it is, we are told to consider her looks – nothing to do with her own efforts – and once again reduce women to things to look at. Never would this have been written about Biden or Pence.  Only women get this treatment.”

Her anger was palpable and others were quick to express their outrage.

Replying to de Waal’s tweet, one Twitter user said: “It’s The Telegraph.  What do you expect of a newspaper named after a 200-year old method of communication which is no longer in use today? Of course The Telegraph is going to belittle her and diminish her achievements by focussing on her beauty.”

There are a couple of issues with Twitter discourse that are worth exploring. The first is that newspaper articles no longer have the benefit of juxtaposition.

We rarely, if ever, sit and read a paper in one sitting, and so we miss the balance that editors strive to achieve in their coverage of world events. The Telegraph published a number of news pieces on the same day with a more political focus. “Kamala Harris has just made history”, one headline said, while another expressed “How Kamala Harris could reshape the role of vice president”.

But this point was missed because it was only the offending article that was being shared. It was assumed by detractors that this was the sole coverage The Telegraph had produced that day.

The second problem with Twitter is the backlash. As usual, there was a person on the receiving end of the hate – in this case, Sonia Haria, the Telegraph’s Beauty Director.

It is now the norm for journalists to have to field Twitter pile-ons with every article they write. The wider question, of course, is do we ever need articles about Kamala Harris’s “swishy, low-maintenance hair”? There is certainly a debate to be had about how such coverage reduces a woman to the sum total of her looks rather than her achievements.

But Sonia Haria’s defence of her article seems fair. She issued a Twitter statement that pointed out: “My department is beauty, hence focusing on Kamala’s public image. We have similar public image stories on Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

“My piece is not intended to be reductive of Kamala’s talents. You can be interested in politics and beauty at the same time.”

Style articles on Kamala Harris will no doubt still be written. Fashion and beauty are not cancelled because of one mistimed piece. But the issue at the heart of this episode is one of context.

Because without the experience of reading an entire day’s coverage in a paper, isolated articles will attract an unusual focus when it is not actually that unusual for a style writer to comment on style.

What is sad about the treatment of Sonia Haria is that she faced such bitter opprobrium from women who make their own fashion choices every day.

Timing is everything, as Kit de Waal observed. “This was not the day,” she wrote. “Just let (Kamala Harris) have her moment as a serious politician.”

A style piece so soon after such a deeply symbolic victory was ill-judged. Fashion and beauty can wait, although it’s true to say that what The Telegraph actually got most wrong was the headline and the tone.

The New York Times ran a similarly-timed piece arguing that fashion statements are in fact political statements at times like these. It said: “Kamala Harris in a white suit, dressing for history. This wasn’t about fashion, it was about politics, past and future.”

Their article was more nuanced, more persuasive, with a nod to history in their analysis of the white suit. “A garment in a colour meant, as an early mission statement for the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage published in 1913 read, to symbolise ‘the quality of our purpose’.”

Was the Telegraph’s article just clickbait to rile the feminists? Or was it just not very good?

Sonia Haria basically just fell over on the runway. The question now is whether we help her up or kick her while she is down.

Photo credit: Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group

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Louise Palfreyman

Louise Palfreyman is a journalist and author of a feminist anthology of non-fiction published by The Emma Press. Her short fiction is published in Best British Short Stories and journals and anthologies in the UK and abroad.

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