The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Zelensky’s clothing choice is a statement about his leadership

Military attire has long helped state leaders build their image — but the details matter

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on Dec. 21. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
7 min

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.

This is why, in democracies, leaders have preferred to rely on their military fame, not clothing, in building political legitimacy. For instance, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower all earned respect as generals of the Army before becoming presidents. Yet, they were also careful to fashion themselves as presidential leaders based not on military rank but on their image as civil servants. In official presidential portraits, they’re each dressed in a suit — the “civilian uniform” — which conveys power and prestige without the trappings of the military. Despite holding the role of commander in chief, U.S. presidents, regardless of their military background, use their civilian attire to signify that their authority derives from the people, not the armed forces.

Occasionally, U.S. presidents have appeared in security briefings and been photographed in situation rooms dressed in more-casual, military-inspired sportswear such as windbreakers and bomber jackets. When urgency is involved, a tailored suit can send the wrong message, while practical attire can confer authority without the air of authoritarianism. Military-suggestive attire may be a good compromise for politicians in moments of crisis, but most democratic leaders would prefer to avoid the negative optics of wearing the look of a general.

Democratic leaders have also avoided appearing in fatigues — the uniform of the rank-and-file soldier. Perhaps this is because it has been a style adopted by leaders of uprisings, including Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, to signal power. For these leaders, camouflage battledress served a utilitarian purpose, while also conveying their political image as “eternal warriors” for the causes of Cuban revolution and Palestinian independence, respectively. By sporting these outfits, along with disheveled beards, Castro and Arafat aligned themselves with the struggles of their people as they wielded their battle experience as a political strength.

Castro’s garb was especially notable for symbolizing his role in ousting Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s corrupt military dictator who wore the general’s uniform. In adopting simple olive-green fatigues as Cuba’s new leader, rather than the costume of his predecessor, Castro embodied the resistance, asserted his own heroism in the revolution and signaled the populist tone of his new regime. His outfit became so iconic as a revolutionary style that, in 1983, Castro was inducted into People magazine’s Fashion Hall of Fame (along with Princess Diana and David Bowie).

Like Castro, Arafat understood the power of fashion in building both a national brand and an individual image. Although Arafat’s style was, like Castro’s fatigues, designed to represent the “everyman,” his uniforms were neatly pressed and his boots highly polished, alluding to the careful attention (and time) he put into his appearance. Arafat’s fashioning signaled he was a leader deserving of respect and admiration, even if his attire looked rugged at first sight. And while his kaffiyeh became associated with the Palestinian people and a symbol of their identity, Arafat’s attire became synonymous with the man himself. “I like to dress the Arafat way!” he exclaimed to a Vanity Fair reporter in 1989.

Arafat’s image as a fighter was so crucial to his identity that he kept the style even after he became a civilian leader. In public appearances, including an official ceremony on the White House lawn after the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993, Arafat donned his famous fatigues. Unlike his Israeli partner, Yitzhak Rabin, a military general who had exchanged his uniform for a suit once he became prime minister, Arafat used his battle attire to define his relationship with the Palestinian people and his continued efforts to achieve international recognition for a Palestinian state until his death in 2004.

The styles selected by Arafat and Castro stemmed from their fighting experience and their lack of concern about the views of the voting public, as in an electoral democracy. Both leaders could harness battle references as visual manifestations of their authority, even as they each rejected the general’s uniform that authoritarian leaders preferred.

Zelensky’s adoption of military attire provides yet another illustration of the warrior-turned-political-leader image. Zelensky ­­— a comedian with minimal political or military experience before becoming president — has had to simultaneously build his style and his political legitimacy. Like Castro and Arafat, he understands the impact fashion can have on the national public and the global community, and like them, he uses clothes to build his own political brand.

But Zelensky doesn’t try to position himself as a military leader or as a powerful general who rules by force. His outfit, military-inspired casual wear that differs from the official Ukrainian military uniform, offers a democratic alternative to the “eternal warrior” image. Zelensky has indeed been characterized as a warrior, but his war is for the expansion of democracy, and his military garb works as an expression of democracy, because Zelensky, like other Ukrainians, is a civilian turned soldier in the battle for his country.

Time will tell if Zelensky will stick to his military style or if, in peacetime, he will return to formal civilian attire, such as a suit and tie. Either way, over most of the past year, he has managed to set new visual standards for democratic political leaders. Zelensky has proved he understands the rules of theater — political, military and cultural. As he noted in his speech to Congress, image can help fulfill a greater purpose: “We defeated Russia in the battle for minds of the world.”