I’m obsessed with Kamala Harris’s pearls. Seeing them on her changed my mind: I always thought they were too fancy for me. I’m further confused, because my teen daughter has started wearing pearls. How should I wear them and is that answer affected by my age (I’m 47)? Do I have to get an expensive necklace or are fakes OK? — Ingrid, Markham
Pearls are having a big moment. As I thought about your timely questions, I pulled my own set out of its velvet box, untouched for the past year, obviously, but likely for a couple of years before that. Pearls are the most classic of accessories, but I agree with you, they had taken on a haughty, country club vibe in my mind (despite how great and modern they look on Harry Styles). Then I put my pearls on and I felt a palpable lift to my spirits.
Seeing Kamala Harris on that inaugural dais — the whole event a fashion feast of symbolic meanings — was beyond inspiring, and I second your obsession with the VP’s pearls. Teamed with pumps or Converse sneakers, a gown or a business suit, Harris’s signature accessory always alludes to deeper themes.
As I’m new to this space, I will quickly introduce myself here. I’ve been contributing to the Star since 2011, chiefly about fashion, and writing a column for The Kit since 2018. Style has been my beat since the mid-’90s, when I was a fashion reporter for the Globe and Mail, covering the international runways in the glitzy heyday of the OG supermodels. I then went on to become editor-in-chief of Fashion magazine just as celebrities took over the covers. Sounds all very glamorous and of course it was, but chronicling the industry today is far more satisfying, witnessing fashion wrestle with its legacy of promoting thorny and problematic values. The industry’s (late and slow, but building) movement toward inclusion, diversity and sustainability has reinvigorated my passion for the subject.
Fashion is the study of what we are trying to say about ourselves through our clothes. Pearls are a perfect example of this dialogue. Like an emoji, pearls are concentrated shorthand for a whole mood. Pearls read instantly as classy. Harris has been wearing pearls since her days in Alpha Kappa Alpha at Howard University, where pearls are part of the sorority’s tradition. “The strand of pearls speaks to solidarity among the members,” Glenda Glover, the international president of AKA, said at the time of Harris’s acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination for VP. “Pearls represent refinement and wisdom.”
Reason enough to take up a pearl habit, but I understand your hesitancy over how to make the look feel right on you. I took your question to long-time Toronto fashion stylist Loretta Chin for some concrete advice. She is currently assistant costume designer on a production called “In the Dark,” shooting in Toronto.
Chin reports that she, too, pulled out her own pearls for our phone call. “Pearls can look fussy and staid” on a grown-up, she says. “So I like to wear mine more casually. Right now I have on a denim shirt with a distressed Helmut Lang sweater and leopard joggers. Pearls are never wrong with a crisp white shirt and jeans, either.”
Chin pursued her dream set of pearls in Japan, at Mikimoto. The store’s founder, Kochiko Mikimoto, was the first person to culture pearls, in 1893. “I always loved the Mikimoto ads in Vogue in the 1970s and ’80s,” says Chin. “They were the epitome of sensual sophistication to me.”
Her jewelry box is full of less expensive pearls, too. “Would I say buy the best set you can afford? Yes,” says Chin. “But I also love some freshwater pearls or big pearls, multiple strands of long fakes to wear with gowns.”
Pearls come in and out of prominence in fashion, but like diamonds they are timeless and never “out” of fashion. They have been worn by the great beauties of the world, from Cleopatra on down. There is a long history of them adorning both men and women, back to Julius Caesar’s day, though he decreed they could be worn only by aristocrats. Elizabeth Taylor owned the world’s largest pearl (La Peregrina, a Valentine’s Day gift from Richard Burton). They are a staple of the Queen’s and were favoured by Jackie O and the Princess of Wales.
Pearls are created by live creatures (98 per cent today are cultured), which gives them a lit-from-within lustre. They are right for day and night. You can go with a classic choker or princess length (40 to 45 centimetres), or you can go with a more modern design, entwined with metal. You can wear them as a ring, earrings, brooch or eyeglass/mask chain.
To your question, though, most importantly you can and should wear pearls at any age. Like Chin, I bought my (real) pearls for myself, at age 40. I grew up doing a shambolic, suburban high school impression of Madonna in the “Desperately Seeking Susan” era, when we mixed up plastic pearls with chains and other metallic finds picked up at the hardware store alongside an armful of rubber-gasket bracelets. But I noted with approval that when Madonna turned 60 a couple of years ago, she wore (real, pricey) opera-length pearls on the cover of British Vogue. What goes around comes around.
And as for wearing the same trend as one’s daughter, I asked my own to comment and she said she’d probably not wear a necklace, but maybe some kind of a choker. She reports she too has pulled out her pearl bracelet recently.
And that’s the real trick: adapting any trend to the individual. Back to the inauguration stage, Amanda Gorman wore a pearl ring: It was encased in a gilded birdcage and given to her by Oprah to represent Maya Angelou — how laden with specialness can one object be? Jennifer Lopez wore head-to-toe white Chanel, adorned by pearl earrings, bracelets and belts. The house has been known for its embrace of pearls since Coco Chanel began draping herself in operatic strands of them, as punctuation for the androgynous silhouettes she was ushering in in the ’30s.
It is a testament to the rich history of pearls that they can still make fresh news today.
Shop the advice
A princess-length strand is timeless, or try a modern take on pearls in rings or brooches.
Mejuri cultured pearl necklace, $525, mejuri.com
Swarovski faux-pearl choker, $200, simons.ca
Urban Outfitters faux-pearl necklace, $89, urbanoutfitters.com
Ssense faux-pearl brooch, $160, ssense.com
Chanel ring, price upon request, chanel.com
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