ON THE RUNWAY
The second European outreach tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, which took place this week in Poland and Germany, was notable for a number of reasons.
First was the trip’s success as what German newspapers called “die royale Charme-Offensive,” a.k.a. the use of the “New Gen” royals as envoys to reassure Europeans that just because Britain is leaving the European Union, it doesn’t mean everyone can’t be friends. Second was the fact that — unlike the first tour, to France — the young family went en bloc, with Prince George, 3, and Princess Charlotte, 2, joining their parents. And third was the canny use of the family’s clothing to present a coordinated picture of friendship and cultural awareness.
A color-coordinated picture, to be exact.
Diplomats and politicians using their wardrobes as vehicles of communication is increasingly part of the job these days — we expect it, they plan for it. Traditionally, though, the focus has been on what women wear, and largely what spouses of leaders wear, in part because they tend to be cast in a role that demands their clothes do the speaking for them.
Originally, that took the form of support for home industry (like wearing creations by designers from your country, the better to get their names known round the world). Later, it evolved into cross-border symbolism: wearing the styles of designers from the country being visited, or who were born in the country being visiting and who later moved to your country, thus serving notice that you cared about the host country’s creative community. Either way, the thought process was revealed by the inevitable question, “Who are you wearing?”
Now, however, we seem to have reached something of a new stage.
The duchess — the former Kate Middleton — has employed both of the above tactics quite effectively on official trips to India, Canada and the United States, and did so again this time around, wearing British names such as Alexander McQueen, Catherine Walker and Jenny Packham, and Gosia Baczynska, a Polish designer, to a party in honor of the Queen’s birthday in Warsaw; Markus Lupfer, a German-born designer now working in London, to a reception in Berlin; and Hugo Boss, to compete in a rowing race in Heidelberg, Germany. But it was the two moments of arrival in each country, when the Cambridges deplaned en masse and in theme, that made the most impact.
Why was that? Well, because they got the whole family involved!
Landing in Warsaw, for example, they were a symphony in (mostly) red and white, Poland’s national colors: the duchess in white Alexander McQueen; the duke in a navy suit, white shirt and red tie; Princess Charlotte in a red-and-white smocked dress and red shoes; Prince George in a red-and-blue check shirt and navy shorts.
And that highly visual entrance was followed by a similarly choreographed arrival in Berlin, with the duchess in a Prussian blue — or Berlin blue — coat and dress by Catherine Walker, Prince William in a matching tie, Princess Charlotte in a blue-and-white floral dress, and Prince George in a matching light-blue shirt and again (navy) shorts.
Whether anyone heard the diplomatic niceties mumbled to the officials on the tarmac didn’t matter: The wider message, meant for anyone watching — or reading, or checking Instagram — was unmistakable from the pictures, which were singularly easy to read no matter what the platform. The individual designers mattered less than the net effect of the colors.
Interestingly, Melania Trump likewise dressed in color code during her recent trip with President Trump to France, with pretty much every outfit featuring some combination of red, white and blue, the colors of the French and American flags.
In both cases, the point was not about changing the business fortunes of a brand, but about acknowledging the national identity and history of the host country — about finding a point of convergence.
Like the themed socks of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, such calculated prismatics are an accessible approach to the diplomatic dress challenge. You don’t have to know anything about fashion to understand them.
Think of it as Pantone politics. Betcha we’ll see more of it.