- "I wouldn't be surprised if we see her show up to the inauguration ball in a beautifully woven Banarasi sari," says fashion designer Bibhu Mohapatra.
Next week promises to be a week like no other. With Donald Trump’s inglorious exit, rising Covid-19 numbers, the threat of armed protests and calls for violence following the siege of the Capitol, next week’s presidential inauguration will capture the attention of the world, like never before.
Amidst all this, the sartorial choice of Vice President-elect for her oath-taking ceremony might seem a bit trifle. And yet for some Asian Americans, the possibility of the nation’s first Black and South Asian Vice President wearing a traditional sari to the inauguration events has offered a reason for excitement and fodder for debate.
The sari, which holds immense cultural significance to Indians, could be a powerful symbol of how the Biden-Harris administration intends to lead America and better represent minorities, were she to drape one.
An article by CNN sparked the imagination of Indian Americans on various social media groups, setting off a lively conversation of sorts.
A netizen Anuja Rajbhandari gushing on the Facebook group Indian Americans for Biden-Harris, “That would be way cool!!!It would be like any other formal gown.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see her show up to the inauguration ball in a beautifully woven Banarasi sari,” fashion designer Bibhu Mohapatra told CNN in a phone interview from Brunswick, Georgia. “I think she understands the power of that image.”
Another member Chinmoy Roy posted, “Wearing a saree on inauguration day is like Trump hugging the U.S. flag (a piece of cloth). Besides being a woman, this society still judges a woman by how she looks and what she wears. I am expecting her instead to promote Indian values, such as family values, respect for elders, compassion for the poor etc. That is more important to me than gimmicks.”
Mukesh Advani who attended the ceremony when she became San Francisco DA posted, “That would be something! She was very close to her mother (Shyamala Gopalan).” Advani recalling her DA ceremony posted, “It was an all Hindu affair with pandits and all.”
Samir Sen posts, “Maybe at the ball, when the female VP will dance with her husband, the wearing of a fabulous silk sari, will be most appropriate. That is the occasion, when diversity, so prized by the Biden admin, ought to be put on display.”
Designer Naeem Khan, who dressed First Lady Michelle Obama 28 times during her tenure at the White House told CNN that Harris could also 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 said 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.”
In Khan’s opinion, 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 to CNN. “I think Kamala Harris is going to be conscious about that as well — about the different cultures of our country.”
Sadaf Jaffer, who served as Mayor of Montgomery Township, Somerset County, in New Jersey 2019 and 2020, chose to wear a sari for her second swearing in ceremony. Talking to American Kahani, she says, “As a South Asian American elected official, I had to navigate how to present my identity. Sometimes I wore western attire – blazers and skirts and sometimes South Asian attire – ghararas, jhoomars and saris. For my first swearing in as mayor I wore a skirt and blazer and for my second, I wore a sari. I decided to do this for a number of reasons. One was to normalize the diverse backgrounds we all bring. I wanted to show that I was proud of my heritage just as every American should be. I also wanted to draw upon the strength of my ancestors. When I was facing a particularly difficult event, I would tend to wear South Asian clothing to give me courage to face challenges.”
As to the conjecture about Harris wearing a sari, Jaffer says, “It’s really up to her, whatever she feels is comfortable and appropriate.”
Vijay D’Souza asks pointedly in his post, “Did folks ask Obama to represent his Kenyan heritage … Why the double standard? She should wear what she is comfortable wearing.”
However, there are many that think the sari may not be the right choice for the inauguration.
Some like netizen Lahiri Lunagirl believe she doesn’t have to prove her Indianness. “She does not have to wear a sari. She doesn’t wear it in the U.S.”
Others just want to see a peaceful transition of power, regardless of choice of wardrobe. Kalpana Mohan posted on a FB group, “It’s hardly important what she wears that day. I want all these people (Biden and Harris) to come out unscathed and for transfer of power to happen without a hitch.”
Shyla Ganesan too feels the same with her post which states, “Does it really matter? I think what is at stake is restoring peace, sanity and stability. I am praying next week goes off well.”
Krishna Joseph is incredulous as she asks in her post, “Not even Indian women wear saris anymore when they are not in India. So why should Kamala Harris wear a sari?”
Sujata Chande posted, “Are we forgetting she is a person before being Indian, Black or American. She should wear what she feels like. Wearing a sari or not will not make her any less Indian. Let’s not see her as a symbol of this or that. Let’s not impose any stereotypes on her. She is a symbol of strength, leadership and honor about to step up as VP of USA!”
And Lukose Pnyumkan believes that “It would be better if she wears a sari at an Indian American function or a festival like Diwali or Onam. Not for the inauguration.”
And then there are those that believe debates over VP elect’s attire was too trivial to merit space in a publication. Posts Sid Lahiri, “This discussion is not needed. Irrelevant to the current situation and her duties!”
And the question is not new. It has been posed to Harris before — during her own presidential campaign in 2019. At an event hosted by Asian American group, an audience member lightheartedly asked Harris 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. “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.”
Well said Madame Vice-President Elect! Guess one will have to wait till Wednesday to see whether Harris will invoke her Indian heritage or not.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.