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We Think We Know Why President Zelenskyy Keeps Wearing T-Shirts for Speeches

Volodymyr Zelensky
Volodymyr Zelensky. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

There is an old saying that you should dress not for the job you have, but the job you want to have. In the case of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, there is no denying he’d rather not have to be the leader of a nation facing an invasion from a larger and more powerful neighbor. Since the beginning of the unprovoked Russian invasion, he typically appears in a green army t-shirt bearing the “Cross of Ukraine,” and that shirt has almost become akin to his “armor.”

The former actor and comedian, who actually once only “played” the president of Ukraine before actually being elected to the office, reportedly sleeps only a few hours each night and has vowed he will remain in Kyiv. When asked if he needed help escaping the besieged city after Russia launched its unprovoked attack, Zelenskyy responded, “I need ammunition not a ride.”

On Wednesday, Zelenskyy delivered an impassioned address to the United States Congress, and while many praised his speech, investment adviser and financial pundit Peter Schiff questioned Zelenskyy’s choice of attire.

“I understand times are hard, but doesn’t the President of the #Ukraine own a suit? I don’t have much respect for current members of the U.S. Congress either, but I still wouldn’t address them wearing a t-shirt. I wouldn’t want to disrespect the institution or the Unites States,” Schiff (@PeterSchiff) wrote on Twitter.

Schiff faced a backlash on social media, yet remained defiant, further tweeting, “It’s not about impressing anyone. It’s just common respect. He is representing his nation, and addressing the U.S. Congress.  It’s not like his in the battle field personally, and can’t bother to put on a suit. He can just reach into the same closet he keeps his t-shirts.”

Suit Up

For the record, Zelenskyy does own a suit – likely several. He was most recently seen clean-shaven in his speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 19, just five days before Russia moved from building a presence at the border to a full-scale attack on Ukraine.

Since coming under attack Zelenskyy has not only vowed to remain in Ukraine’s capital but has regularly appeared in media sporting that t-shirt. It has become a de facto uniform – and often times in wartime, European leaders have donned uniforms. While British Prime Minister Winston Churchill only on occasion wore a military uniform during the Second World War, it could be that Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini typically wore some form of uniform – and he may have wanted to avoid a similar look.

It should be noted too that Vladimir Putin has continued to sport a suit, so Zelenskyy’s appearance very much could be in contrast.

There is also something to be said for thinking too hard about attire in wartime.

Schiff need only be reminded of José Sanjurjo y Sacanell, the Spanish general who led the July 1936 coup d’etat that started the Spanish Civil War. He was killed in a plane crash, when he tried to fly back to Spain. One of the main reasons for the crash was the heavy luggage that Sanjurjo insisted on bringing with him, as he stated, “I need to wear proper clothes as the new caudillo of Spain.”

Likewise, General Sir Thomas Picton, the Welsh commander of Wellington’s 3rd (‘Fighting’) Division was known for his often eccentric attire. He sported a nightcap while leading his forces at the Battle of Busaco in 1810 during the Napoleonic Wars. Five years later, during the Battle of Waterloo, he was forced to wear his civilian clothing, including a top hat, as the baggage train carrying his uniform hadn’t arrived in time. Picton was killed while leading his men early in the fighting, and his infamous hat is on display in the collection of London’s National Army Museum.

Perhaps one day, the t-shirt of Zelenskyy will have a similar honor.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.