He’s worn it to meet fellow world leaders, he’s worn it while directing his country’s fight-back against Russia and to meet troops on the frontline. In the past year, Volodymyr Zelensky’s Sweatshirt has become the most famous sweatshirt in the world. But it’s more than that. It is also one of the most celebrated political outfits in history.
The sweatshirt is from U-Shirt, a small Ukrainian brand born in the wake of the war as a way to make Ukraine’s voice heard. You can buy the “President’s sweatshirt” as it’s dubbed on U-Shirt’s website for $100.
Superficially, it might be easy to think that the Sweatshirt’s significance simply revolves around the fact that it’s another example of casual political style, like Barack Obama’s rolled-up sleeves, or Emmanuel Macron’s absence of a tie. But it’s more than that. Much more. It’s a deliberate political statement.
Much like Churchill’s siren suit, so-called because he adopted the working-man’s onesie during the Second World War so he could slip it on in the event of an air raid, Zelensky is fusing political influence with a style that speaks to both public and media alike. That it has an army feel – the President has a near-identical collection in olive and black and normally teams them with combat trousers – clearly speaks volumes.
Historically, it is military commanders such as Napoleon or Henry V who are most revered as leaders – and Zelensky cannot claim a Forces background. But the Sweatshirt also hits a more casual note; when Zelensky addressed the US Congress, Ukraine, or met with Joe Biden, the simplicity of his clothes spoke to an urgency for peace and for aid.
It is a marked contrast with Vladimir Putin’s style – for this is a look that is fundamentally about disdain for the Russian leader. By sporting the Sweatshirt, Zelensky immediately minimises Putin’s petulant machismo, pricking the Russian President’s brittle demeanour and – in a flash – making him seem like some outmoded and old-fashioned fascist blockhead from the mid 20th century.
The Sweatshirt semaphored Zelensky’s refusal to take Putin, with his £10,000 Loro Piana jackets and £8,800 Blancpain Grande Date Aqua Lung watch, seriously. Zelensky’s refusal to “dress up” for Putin, his refusal to look as though he’s cowed, means he is making a mockery of Putin’s doomed and overripe attempt to rebuild the Soviet Union.
I was in Ukraine this week, visiting the landmine charity Halo and there was no escaping images of Zelensky in the Sweatshirt: on the flickering TV screens in the enormous cafe in Lviv’s monolithic train station; on the front page of the newspapers scattered in the breakfast bar in The International Hotel, in Kyiv; and on the colourful posters in the ops room in Halo’s Brovary headquarters, where staff oversee 700 workers who are minesweeping the 7,000,000 sq m in Ukraine that are laden with unexploded Russian missiles, bombs and mines.
Talking to Ukrainians as they practised minesweeping, I learnt they were resolute, angry and determined to do whatever they could to defeat Putin – and they all seemed to love Zelensky. “He is a man of the people and he looks like a man of the people,” said one.
This is where the Sweatshirt works more magic, proclaiming: “I am with the army even though I am not in the army”; “I am a man who gets things done, who does things instead of says things”; “I am a man who doesn’t have the time to change his clothes, who doesn’t have time to put on a suit.”
Basically, Zelensky’s Sweatshirt says: “I am me and I am going to win. So f— you.”
So when did the rest of the world notice the Zelensky top? I date it to his appearance at the US Congress in the House Chamber of the US Capitol, last December, in which the olive-green Sweatshirt was adorned with a golden trident design on the chest. (The trident being the main element of Ukraine’s coat of arms.) That’s when men everywhere found they could identify with Zelensky: he looks like a dad, with a bit of heaviness around his trunk, and makes little attempt to make himself presentable.
There is also a hint of Hollywood rebel hero: the last man to wear a Sweatshirt with such panache was arguably Steve McQueen as Capt Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape.
Other men have caught on – after images of Zelensky first went around the world in March last year, Macron was photographed in a hoodie with the logo of an elite parachute unit, with chin stubble. His one other piece of signature clothing, his zip-up jacket by a brand called M-TAC has sold out.
One of his M-TAC jackets that he had signed was auctioned for £90,000 ($110,000) at a charity fundraiser hosted by the Ukrainian embassy in London. Meanwhile, on eBay you can a buy a version of the U-Shirt for £22.
Predictably, there are some who don’t like what Zelensky does, and think that the Sweatshirt has become something of a lazy visual shorthand. There are also those uncharitable souls who knew him before he waded into politics and say that Zelensky’s public persona is just an act, and that this whole man-of-the-people thing has been orchestrated. But, to me, this is a man who defiantly understands his audience, the people of the Ukraine, and the world that he wants to unite behind him.
Like Margaret Thatcher with her voice (it was invented, as she wanted to sound posh even though she despised the upper classes), and Harold Wilson with his pipe (in private he smoked cigars but felt they weren’t egalitarian enough), when Zelensky entered the political arena he learned that in order to make people sit up and listen, then he would need an act, a spiel, a narrative, a story to keep the world interested.
And with the Sweatshirt, Zelensky seems to have found the perfect vehicle.
Che Guevara’s beret
The photograph by Alberto Korda of the Cuban revolutionary in his trademark beret is ingrained in the public consciousness and has become a symbol of rebellion.
Churchill’s iconic siren suit
The British statesman adopted the working man’s boiler suit during World War Two so he could slip it on and still look smart in the event of an air raid – hence the name siren suit.
No pussy bow blouse has elicited as much chat as Thatcher’s. But with her pearls, her handbag and her vivid power suits, her inimitable style became the uniform that stood for female political power.
Barack Obama’s sleeve roll
The simple roll of the shirt sleeve said exactly what Obama wanted – that he was a man with a job to do for America.
Mao Zedong’s tunic
The Chinese dictator and communist revolutionary was known for wearing the suit with the trademark collar. It had four pockets, said to represent the Four Virtues of propriety, justice, honesty and shame.