Monday, August 8, 2022
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In Washington, Olena Zelenska Dressed for Ukraine

On Wednesday, on the third leg of an unofficial three-day trip to Washington, D.C., Olena Zelenska, the wife of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, became the rare first lady to address Congress.

But despite the fact that she had, on the initial two days of her trip, engaged in what could have been called typical first lady things — posing primly with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his office; warmly greeting President Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, who met her with a bouquet of flowers; wearing an array of dresses and suits by Ukrainian designers, with nods to the colors of the Ukrainian flag — she was not, as she said in her speech, there to talk about typical first lady things.

“Usually the wives of presidents are exclusively engaged in peaceful affairs,” she said as she stood in the Capitol in a black suit dress by the Ukrainian label AMG, a slice of white fabric bisecting one side of the jacket. “Education, human rights, equality, accessibility.”

Instead of all that, she said, she was there to ask for weapons, “weapons that will not be used to wage a war on somebody else’s land but to protect one’s home and the right to make up a life in that home.”

It was an emotional, unapologetic appeal, framed by photographs of the devastation in Ukraine, of children who had been killed, or maimed, and given extra power by the contrast between the familiar, soft-focus optics of the woman standing in front of the legislators and the harsh words she was speaking. The image was a reminder in black and white (literally) of just how much her job had changed because of war. That the “normalcy” of everyday life, as she said in her speech, was gone from Ukraine.

It was a reminder, too, that, just as in peaceful times, the role of the first lady is to act as the symbolic mother (and hostess) of the nation, she is still, in times of violence, its human face; the bridge between the familiar and the unfathomable.

In such a context, every choice a first lady makes, every gesture, becomes ammunition to be deployed on battlefield of public opinion, including what she wears. Especially, perhaps, what she wears, since for a first lady in her position, most viewers will not be party to her conversations with power brokers, but they can see the pictures.

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