It’s a cliché to insult Canada as America’s blander, more stable neighbor. Most of us aren’t pretending when we say we ignore everything going on there. Nonetheless, the whirlwind accession of its young, photogenic new prime minister got my attention, for he has a name that speaks volumes, both in the unfamiliar realm of Canadian political history and the well-trodden demesne of men’s style: Trudeau. Trudeau fils follows in the footsteps of his father, perhaps the greatest style icon ever from that unjustly ignored country: 1970s and 1980s Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
To say Pierre Trudeau made Canada cool would play into the cliché above and suggest that Canada has otherwise been uncool. Still, he enjoys a role in popular nostalgia (at least among students of 1970s decadence) as the swinging, playboy leader of a nation famous for polite restraint. (Sorry, I did it again.) And to characterize Pierre Trudeau as just the playboy premier who dated stars and, at 50, married the 22-year-old wild child Margaret Sinclair would be to forget that he came to power during a time when Canada was anything but restrained, rocked by Québecois separatist terrorism – including bombings, kidnappings of prominent officials, and assassinations. Trudeau had the resolve to take controversial, decisive steps to enforce order – but also the political sensitivity to address the broader, popular concerns about self-determination that had fuelled support for the separatists. In other words, he had both the stones and the savvy to keep his country together. More than that, he he also liberated Canada from the last colonial vestiges of legal oversight from the British parliament.
What do these have to do with style? Pierre Trudeau’s political actions reflected the same fearlessness and versatility as his dress sense, and there we have the keys to his, or any, charisma as a style icon: comfort in a variety of different situations, and faithfulness to yourself, no matter what others might think. Vigor, stamina and a youthful figure (Margaret infamously proclaimed that her fiftysomething husband had “the body of a 25-year-old”) didn't hurt either. According to Canadian online style magazine Sharp, Trudeau went ice skating in a fur coat, jauntily sported a rose as a boutonnière, and rocked nautical stripes, neckerchief and bell-bottomed floppy trousers in summer. He knew that secret to sartorial success: nothing more or less than the confidence to pull off whatever clothing combination he was wearing, surprised onlookers be damned.
Perhaps most memorably, in the months following the separatist turmoil of Canada’s October Crisis, Trudeau showed up to the Canadian Football League’s 1970 Grey Cup match in a fedora with a rakishly tilted brim, a flower at his lapel and a fly cape draped over his shoulders. It’s hard to imagine any other elected world leader doing the same – that sort of theatrically over-the-top ensemble might more commonly be associated with absolute rulers or Bond villains (or Joe Namath, if that’s not redundant). However, the sly smile Trudeau sports in photographs of his arrival at the event suggests he knew he could get away with it because he was at home in his clothes…and at home in the country he had kept together. Sprezzatura may be a hackneyed and misused term, but Trudeau may have pulled off an act of political sprezzatura with that outfit – the nonchalance of apparent sartorial omnipotence belying his recent struggles with secessionists. And, it must be admitted, struggles with criticism from civil libertarians who objected to the suspension of various civil rights during his fight against the separatists. In the face of those accusations of imperious overreach, the common politician might have hunkered down and put on his concerned, sober, man-of-the-people face and outfit. But Trudeau was not a common man.
Trudeau’s citation when he was named to the Order of Canada in 1985 stated that “the style is the man” – true in his case, not only in his dress sense but so much more. The man, in his boldness, individuality, and presence, made the style.