In an address to the media this week, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the current president of Ukraine, was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt. This is quite the contrast from countries like the United States, where former President Barack Obama was criticized by American conservatives for wearing a tan suit in a press conference about military affairs, which they deemed too casual. New York Representative Peter King was quoted saying, “There’s no way, I don’t think, any of us can excuse what the president did yesterday. I mean, you have the world watching.” Only eight years later, however, Republican Ohio Representative Jim Jordan referred to Zelenskyy’s handling of the current situation as “truly amazing.” In the past decade, is it possible that we are seeing the deterioration of the suit and tie as a symbol for power in the world? Zelenskyy does not seem to need to dress a certain way to earn the respect of people from a myriad of places, and his actions are being talked about. If this is a mark of a turning point in the optics of global politics and not just a one-off occurrence because of the unique circumstances, an arbitrary status quo that has stood strong for centuries may be teetering on the edge.
Why is this an important precedent for Zelenskyy to set? Well, formal attire simply is not an accessible dress code for the masses of the world. Asking people to dress a certain way, especially when it is a very high-class European way, should not be a prerequisite to hold legitimate political power. Alongside this, it’s not even very practical. For a leader in wartime, dressing like they are about to walk a red carpet does not convey the message that they are ready to stand alongside their people.
One comparison that can be drawn to Zelenskyy’s public appearances is the speech Franklin Roosevelt gave to the U.S. senate immediately following the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. In the speech, where Roosevelt declared war on Japan, he was wearing formal attire, and speaking at the U.S. Capitol, thousands of miles from Hawai’i. While this was seen as a standard for strength at the time, Roosevelt was not in any personal danger, and his declaration of war would send thousands of Americans to combat in the name of his government. In Ukraine today, the standard for strength that Zelenskyy is setting is very different. Physically being in the combat zone, with a target on himself, and not taking the time to dress up for the sake of optics are all ways he is standing strong against the Russian offensive.
Now, while the eyes of the world are currently on Zelenskyy, it’s important to consider why the precedent he is setting might not stick. To go back to the example of Obama’s tan suit, one unfortunate truth is that Zelenskyy is a white man, and because of this he is less likely to receive scrutiny for arbitrary factors like attire. For instance, multiple Obama predecessors, including Republican President Ronald Reagan, wore tan suits as well and were not criticized.
The other obvious reason is that this is a combat scenario. One look at Zelenskyy’s Wikipedia page shows his presidential portrait, featuring the Ukrainian leader in a suit, very much like a U.S. Presidents’ official photos. If the suit is ever really going to stop being a necessary tool in the holder of power’s belt, political or otherwise, it needs to be unconditional.
One’s ability to purchase and wear expensive clothing is certainly not something that bolsters one’s ability to lead effectively. This applies to political leadership, business or any other space where power may be held. Over the past few days, President Zelenskyy has had his leadership largely judged on his ability to command his country, without having to wade through a swamp of arbitrary, irrelevant criticisms. This is ideally how all leaders should be treated, regardless of race, gender, class or otherwise, and if they are not, there is now a template for how to do this correctly.