For a long time, it was simply a T-shirt: a plain olive green one that could be tucked into military fatigues or pulled out of the back of a closet for workouts and weekends. It was perhaps more brown than green at times. In certain cases, a cross might be placed over the heart, with a coat of arms in the middle.
Nonetheless, over the last four weeks, as the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has dispensed with his former navy suits, white shirts, and ties — the traditional politician’s uniform — in favour of a T-shirt, he has worn it in daily videos to his country, speeches to the European Parliament, the British Parliament, the American Congress, and an interview with CNN over the weekend (and his widely tweeted Zoom call with supporters Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis). It has evolved into something more: a symbol of the power and patriotism of the Ukrainian people, as well as a collection of ideals and a sense of purpose condensed into a familiar form.
The T-shirt serves as a reminder of Mr. Zelensky’s humble beginnings; it serves as a link between him and the citizen-soldiers battling on the streets; and it serves as a symbol that he understands their plight. His ceremonial attire might have been maintained, as Churchill did when he toured the bombed-out areas of Coventry in his black homburg, overcoat, and bow tie during World War II. But the commander in chief chose to dress more casually. The fact that Mr. Zelensky chose to wear a T-shirt instead of a suit, which may be the most accessible clothing available, is as unambiguous a message of unity with his people as any of his words.
Not that Mr. Zelensky’s T-shirt was a show of disdain for people he addressed; rather, it was a symbol of respect and commitment to those he represented; and it served as a constant reminder of what was taking place just beyond his office doors (the cross, by the way, was the insignia of the Ukrainian military). Through his choice to dress in their outfit rather than the uniforms of the other individuals in the room, he was bringing the unreal to life, just as the film he subsequently displayed of bombs raining down on his city did.
Fashion has been used to transmit political messages and impact public opinion for a long time, just as music, filmmaking, and literature have done. It occurred in the 1950s (and subsequently) when the C.I.A. surreptitiously distributed “Doctor Zhivago” in order to destabilise the Soviet Union; and it happened during the Cold War when the covert usage of rock ‘n’ roll was used to chip away at the Berlin Wall to destabilise the Soviet Union. It was highlighted by Fidel Castro’s fondness for an army green military shirt and hat as his uniform, as well as Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party’s adoption of the Mao suit, both of which were intended to conflate the leaders with their respective populations. George W. Bush arriving aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in full military drab flying suit to proclaim victory in the Iraq war was also a memorable moment in American history.
And regardless of whether or not Congress recognises the T-shirt, practically everybody who is watching can tell what it is. Dress is one of the ways we connect with individuals who are in situations that are beyond our comprehension because it makes them seem familiar. Think about how many protesters’ images have become famous because of their clothing: the “woman in the white thoub,” who stood on the roof of a car during the Sudanese protests in 2019; the “man in the white shirt,” who stood in front of the tanks as they rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989; the “woman in a red dress,” who was sprayed by Turkish soldiers during an anti-government demonstration in Istanbul in 2013. These folks become more than just instances of individual heroism (though they are certainly that), they become models of the heroism that is potential in all people.
We may identify with them because of their clothing. One of the most powerful aspects of these photographs is the way they catch a seemingly ordinary individual — someone who is wearing a piece of clothing that is likely to be found in the wardrobe of practically everyone who is viewing, regardless of their nation or status — in an unusual scenario. It enables everyone who is looking to see themselves.
Mr. Zelensky, in his unassuming T-shirt, in his unprepossessing white-walled office, adjacent to the Ukrainian flag, has successfully blended these two traditions into a single entity. He is the guy in the olive green shirt as well as the patriarch of the country, according to legend.
And in his attire, as well as in his actions and words, Mr. Zelensky has set himself up in opposition to the guy on the other side: Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who is known for his elaborate, gilded palaces as well as his love of luxury labels such as Cartier sunglasses and Patek Philippe watches.
While speaking to the crowd on March 18 in Moscow, Mr. Putin wore a Loro Piana puffer that cost more than $10,000 (a change.org petition was started shortly after to demand that the Italian brand, owned by LVMH, denounce their apparent customer) and a Kiton cashmere roll-neck sweater, both of which are branded as badges of wealth that have since been removed from his person. As an example, the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov was observed wearing what GQ reported to be Prada combat boots, which prompted similar selections among his acolytes.
Essentially, it is a power dialectic written on fabric; the elite vs the common man; thesis and antithesis. Who better to comprehend this than Karl Marx?