Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, has a new title: fashion influencer.
The doctor soothingly delivers sombre updates about the novel coronavirus pandemic during press conferences every afternoon. She is authoritative yet gentle, delivering harsh news calmly and urgent instructions kindly. Three weeks ago, few Albertans knew her name. Now they are following her medical advice and copying her fashion sense.
Her influence is real, albeit microscopic compared to global female icons such as Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle. Dr. Hinshaw earlier this week wore a dress with a periodic table print. It comes from Smoking Lily, a boutique based in Victoria. The company had discontinued the dress, but is bringing it out of retirement after receiving dozens of requests thanks to Dr. Hinshaw’s podium appearance. Smoking Lily’s garments make regular appearances in her briefings.
Social scientists who study fashion diplomacy believe Dr. Hinshaw is sending coded messages. Trust science. Shop local. Women can be powerful and stylish. Come for the crisis update, stay for the style. Indeed, Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer, Eileen de Villa, is now known for her scientific prowess and sleek scarves. Someone launched a Twitter account dedicated to her scarves.
Andrea Benoit, an academic review officer at the University of Toronto who has written about brands, fashion and communication, believes Dr. Hinshaw deliberately chooses outfits, particularly the periodic-table dress.
“The dress gives her authority in her science, in the science, of this pandemic,” Ms. Benoit said. “This was obviously a deliberate choice. She didn’t just pick the first thing off the floor and put it on.”
If so, it would be the scientific equivalent of fashion diplomacy. Elizabeth Natelle, communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, believes she coined the phrase fashion diplomacy, which describes how people in the spotlight select clothing and accessories for messaging. When first ladies and duchesses, for example, are travelling abroad, they often wear designers from the host countries, which then boosts sales for local companies.
“Women in high places who are in the eye of the media are very cognizant of personal appearance as part of the message,” Dr. Natelle said. “It is quite a clever way to not only grab the attention of the public to listen to your message, but it also, I think, adds to the credibility of the person."
These theories, however, are short on evidence when it comes to Dr. Hinshaw’s closet.
“While I’ve never been known for my fashion sense – just ask my family – I believe anything that draws attention to COVID-19 is a positive,” Alberta’s top doctor said in a statement. “I hope that everyone commenting on my clothing is also practising social distancing, regularly washing their hands and staying home if sick.”
Smoking Lily received roughly 60 orders for the periodic-table dress after Dr. Hinshaw wore it, and the company intends to make 100 to meet demand. It is donating 10 per cent of the proceeds to the Mustard Seed, which supports vulnerable people who are often homeless or short on food. This also jibes with the theory that Dr. Hinshaw is silently encouraging Canadians to support local businesses and the less fortunate as the economy craters because of COVID-19, the infection caused by the novel coronavirus.
“While I am not choosing clothes that send a message, there is a message I want all Albertans to hear: We all have a role to play in this fight,” she said.
Trish Tacoma, who founded Smoking Lily about 25 years ago, said Dr. Hinshaw is a regular customer. The periodic-table dress sells for about $136. Ms. Tacoma has mixed feelings about the surge in attention to the company’s online store.
“You’re trying to make hay while the sun is shining, but it is this weird pandemic that you’re associated with," she said.
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