This whole Canadian political couture thing began for me some time during 2010. It was then that Stephen Harper started sporting his frameless eyeglasses almost exclusively. Anyone who follows these sorts of things will note that there is something sort of wooden about Harper. He’s most likely an introvert who doesn’t particularly like the spotlight. Like him or not, though, this says something about a man who is so committed to his ideology that he is willing to take on that spotlight no matter how uncomfortable it makes him. But being uncomfortable in public does not win votes nor popularity. And so, as we may all uncomfortably recall, his handlers set about showing the hapless man in fuzzy blue sweaters. At the time, a lot of us wondered, What were those handlers thinking?! Did it have something to do with Bill Cosby?! Most people like and trust Cosby, and he is famous for sweaters. Maybe sweaters are the key to likeability! Or not.
Thankfully, the blue sweaters were dropped quite quickly after an awful lot of mocking that Harper may never live down.
During the 2008 election, though, a minority of Canadians (who bothered to vote) trusted Harper. He managed to squeak out another minority government that was only slightly larger than his previous 2006 government (which was the smallest minority in Canadian history). By March 2011 a non-confidence vote in the House of Parliament brought down his government and an election was called. I’ll talk in other posts about this fascinating election, but for Harper lots had changed–not the least of which, most likely, was the 2008 stock market crash and the onslaught of the Great Recession.
Surprisingly, somehow or another, Stephen Harper not only managed to live down a non-confidence vote and heading a government that was found in contempt of parliament to boot, he actually came out of the election with a majority government. Clearly, something significant had shifted for Canadian voters. The message Harper hammered home, of course, was his ability to steer Canada through the treacherous waters of the flailing world economy. Though I don’t want to be too precious with this eye-wear thing, I do think those frames played a small but crucial role.
Like I said, during 2010, I started noticing that Harper was wearing those non-glare frameless lenses more often–and he does now almost exclusively. And I also noticed that I, on some unconscious level, found the man more likeable! When I started poring over photos of Harper, I realised that he happens to be one of those contact-lens-wearers whose eyes seem to grow cold in photographs or under high lighting conditions like those required for video ops. There’s something about his eye-wear that subtly softens Harper’s look. Those frameless lenses somehow make him more approachable and trustworthy, and it ‘s hard to believe that the blue-sweater posse (or whoever replaced them) didn’t play some sort of a role in the image makeover.
Of course, when it comes to makeovers in Canadian politics, most people will automatically think of Preston Manning, the original makeover King. Remember Manning before the makeover? His oversized eyeglasses seemed laughable and made him appear to be some sort of parochial backwoods wannabe. In 1992, John Cruickshank, in The Christian Science Monitor, suggested that though Manning was a “straight shooter,” his glasses gave him “the look of a perpetually startled owl.” Then came the haircut and the laser eye surgery. And today, Manning is respected as a Canadian statesman.
Former interim Liberal leader, Bob Rae has also eschewed wearing his eyeglasses, except to read. If the geeky professorial look gained purchase in the early 1990’s, clearly something has changed. In Rae’s case, as in Manning’s, the owlish eye-glasses detracted from his general likeability. The Conservative Party were certainly aware of the spectacle of spectacles when they released this attack ad against Rae last year:
YouTube mocksters, Almost Politics, picked up on the focus on Rae’s geeky glasses during his tenure as Ontario’s Premiere in this satirical response to the Conservative attack ad, with a whining narrator pointing out that “Rae wore hipster glasses unironically!” So what do you think? Harper’s roots are in the Reform Party of Canada, which was lead by the mac-daddy of Canadian makeovers. Do Reformers have a fetish about spectacles?!