"It's just a dress. Who cares what she's wearing?" Oh, commenters.
Everyday Icon, Kate Betts's 2011 history of first lady fashion and politics in the context of Michelle Obama's much-covered style was also something of a general defence of fashion. She challenges what she says is a particularly North American ambivalence: the long-time abnegation of interest in clothes, especially among professional women, because of the supposed mutual exclusivity of sartorial flair and seriousness of purpose. "You can work for shoes and bags or you can work for world peace," Betts observes, wryly. "But not both."
Decoding clothing choices, especially in the political arena, has practically become its own beat. In the absence of meaningful access, wonks and observers dissect everything – the meaning of menu items Hillary Clinton chooses when she ducks incognito into a Chipotle, as she did last year, or how the Democratic candidate has taken a page from the Queen and wears bold single-colour ensembles to stand out in a crowd, then uses that fact to be self-deprecating, beating the press to pantsuit punchlines. When Clinton joined Instagram, her first photo was a rack of pantsuits in red, white and blue captioned coyly: "Hard choices." Even former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright used various lapel pins to explicitly telegraph political mood.
Admittedly, the wardrobe parsing of women in power and of female political spouses pretends to be about meaning and subtext, but is more often a pretext to devolve into snarky snap-judgment fashion policing.
There's little of that with the interest in Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau and the state visit – in the honeymoon phase of the new government in power, it's just a sense of elation at seeing Canadian designers and brands on the world stage. "The current government is embracing positive messages, and that extends to decisions about the kind of clothes they wear and image they wish to portray about this country," says Canadian Apparel Federation executive director Bob Kirke. "Her husband is making a conscious effort to be visible in the way that the previous prime minister did not, and given the fact that he's visible it's particularly important that she takes it as an opportunity. That's a great thing. And when is the last time [Canadian fashion] had this level of priority?"
The tactic has certainly benefited the profile of American designers during U.S. first lady Michelle Obama's White House residency, since among her other initiatives she also recognizes the interest in and importance of the U.S. fashion industry and the unprecedented platform her own visibility can offer, and so she dresses accordingly. Ms. Obama also hosted a fashion education workshop for students, with heavyweights like Anna Wintour and designers giving career advice on entrepreneurship and creativity. This, in 2014 at around the same time as the Council of Fashion Designers of America launched the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, a $6-million (U.S.) public-private investment fund program that awards grants to local production facilities, to help revitalize New York's garment industry.
It may be optimistic to expect the same runaway effect on the bottom line with the Canadian brands Grégoire-Trudeau chooses to wear on high-profile and official occasions. But those I've spoken with in the Canadian fashion industry since the election certainly hoped that Grégoire-Trudeau would be a similarly unofficial ambassador for brand Canada, a champion of interesting, established, independent and emerging talent. So far, so good.