Zelensky's Attire in Congress Wasn't Slovenly, it was Strategic

tags: Ukraine, fashion, Volodymyr Zelensky

Einav Rabinovitch-Fox teaches U.S. and women's and gender history at Case Western Reserve University. She writes about the intersections between fashion, culture, politics and modernity. Her new book is Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism (University of Illinois Press, 2021)

Last month, in his first official visit outside Ukraine since the war began, President Volodymyr Zelensky captivated the world with the speech he delivered to a joint meeting of Congress. But he also made a statement with his appearance. Instead of the traditional suit and tie, Zelensky wore what has now become his signature style: an olive-green sweatshirt with the Ukrainian trident on the chest, cargo pants and work boots.

As he arrived in D.C., Zelensky looked more like a soldier taking a short break from the battlefield than a head of state on a diplomatic mission. His outfit, together with his beard, emphasized the unplanned nature of the visit as well as the urgency of Zelensky’s plea for aid and peace.

Although Zelensky’s visit was compared to that of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who in World War II arrived at the White House wearing a siren suit (a one-piece garment designed to be put on easily in air raids), there were notable differences. Churchill changed out of his military outfit and into a formal suit before speaking to Congress. And, unlike Churchill, Zelensky has so consistently worn his martial clothing in public that the look has come to define his leadership style and image.

These are intentional choices. Military attire, whether official uniforms or tactical wear, has long played a crucial role in the way state leaders build their image. These clothes command authority, signal patriotism, display determination and express power — typically, the masculine kind. Fashion is often performative, which makes it a valuable political tool.

Historically, men in uniform have been revered, and it is no coincidence that many capable military leaders have made their way into politics, capitalizing on their military experience and the respect they’ve earned. Yet, the masculine authority and patriotism that uniforms convey can also carry negative meaning, especially when they are associated with dictatorships. From Napoleon and Kaiser Wilhelm II to 20th-century dictators such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Idi Amin, leaders have used their attire to militarize politics and civic life. Positioning themselves as the supreme leaders of their states, these dictators donned the general’s uniform decorated with medals — an outfit meant to exert power derived from fear, control and absolute authority.


Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post

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