The summer of Ukrainian blouses and a history of protest clothing


On May 19, Olena Zelenska, First Lady of Ukraine, wrote an Instagram post marking Vyshyvanka Day, the country’s annual celebration of national costume. The event, which takes place on the third Thursday of May each year, is dedicated to preserving the traditional embroidered clothing of Ukraine. This year, amid the continued Russian invasion, the day took on renewed significance.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2022/02/27: Hundreds gather in Manhattans Washington Square Park to denounce the Russian invasion and show their support for Ukraine.  (Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 2022/02/27: Hundreds gather in Manhattans Washington Square Park to denounce the Russian invasion and show their support for Ukraine. (Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“Somebody shoot [their vyshyvanka] emerged, miraculously surviving, from a closet in a ruined house. Someone is looking for theirs in another country, where the war has pushed them… Someone will wear theirs alive under occupation…and someone else will wear them for the first time, because that was the first time he felt such a need,” Zelenska wrote.

People across Ukraine, from seasoned vyshyvanka collectors and politicians to frontline soldiers and President Zelensky, wore their cottons and linens this year, embroidered with exquisite designs that cover bold, expressive flowers and patterns complex repetitions.

The vyshyvanka celebration even crossed borders as people from all over the world showed their support. Kristina Korniiuk, 34, who fled to Cambridge from her home in Kyiv, went so far as to create a giant embroidered shirt from a bed sheet to ‘show the world how beautiful we are’.

Support for Ukraine through clothing extended beyond the vyshyvanka. Blue and yellow, the colors of the national flag, became the palette of choice for Fashion Week attendees and designers who wanted to communicate their solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Blazers, bodysuits, blankets, and even pointy-toe rubber boots suddenly made sense.

Meanwhile, a photo of a woman wearing a blue headscarf and yellow leather jacket on the Moscow metro has gone viral. “Sometimes the act of resistance doesn’t have to be loud or bold, it just has to be,” a Twitter post sharing the read image.

Blue and yellow also inspired the Support Ukraine collection from Ukrainian-founded digital fashion brand, DRESSX. The collection was launched just two days after the invasion to raise funds for the Ministry of Defence, conflict-affected fashion designers and charities.

The campaign raised UAH 200,000 (about £5,400) in the first 12 hours. As well as facilitating essential fundraising, it provided the building blocks for a global show of support and resistance.

Some would say that a dress won’t do much to end an invasion, and yes, that alone can’t bring peace. But clothing as a vector of protest and identity is an ancient practice, whether it is a single black glove worn on an Olympic podium in 1968 or a red, white and blue striped cockade worn by a revolutionary French.

In September 2021, Dr. Bahar Jalali, founder of Afghanistan’s first gender studies program, posted a photo on Twitter of herself wearing traditional Afghan dress. It was a response to strict dress codes introduced by the Taliban, after the fall of Kabul in August 2021, which required women to wear all-black clothes and cover their hands, face and feet.

From there, the #DoNotTouchMyClothes hashtag spread across social media as women shared their rich and colorful traditional clothing as both a celebration of their culture and a protest against the Taliban’s control over women.

“As with most things, everyone has a different way of understanding, so I think [fashion] works for some people because it helps them discover a story or a movement,” says fashion and homeware designer Tihara Smith. “It won’t work for everyone, but it’s important to have different points of contact.”

Smith’s own work references the Windrush generation and the stories his grandparents told him about arriving in the UK. Woven raffia bags and wall hangings embroidered with Caribbean animals and plants draw inspiration from traditional straw craftsmanship, while slogans such as “Nuff Love” and “You Called, We Came” in vibrant tones of pink, green and yellow reference the album covers of calypso and reggae artists.

“I think it’s important to help carry the story. Future generations can see [the clothing] and really understand it without having to read anything. It gives you an idea of ​​the message, the story and the materials,” says Smith.

Irish fashion designer Róisín Pierce also looks to her heritage to shape her delicate yet sculptural, all-white designs. Her signature techniques, including smock, Irish crochet, lace and needlework, were all taught in Magdalene Laundries – sites where significant abuse and exploitation of women took place – across Ireland. “It is an extremely beautiful work born of a great tragedy. There is a generational history, and it is important that these skills are not forgotten,” says Pierce.

“I love for people to learn about Irish history through my work, especially on the subject of the Magdalen Laundries,” Pierce continues. “The connection between Irish women and craftsmanship – its oppressive and liberating roles in their lives – is fascinating.

“My designs are strongly guided by socio-political concepts and historical references, but it’s important to me that it doesn’t look like something pulled straight from the past.” Inspiration from Pierce’s happy childhood memories – “starburst and beautiful light” – also injects a sense of playfulness.

Like Pierce, women from the Herero tribe in Namibia also use clothing to explore the space between past and present, oppression and expression. The women of the tribe dress in the Victorian silhouettes of the German colonizers who claimed the lives of nearly 80% of their population in the early 1900s.

The tribe references the dress style of these European missionaries, but also subverts it with bright colors, patchwork, rich contrasting textiles, and cow horn-shaped headdresses that symbolize their reverence for livestock. By adopting and adapting the costume of their colonizers, they remember their ancestors while reorienting their own cultural identity. Now the dresses represent a rite of passage for Herero women.

The stories behind blouses, dresses, and gloves are often complex and heavy, and there’s no getting around that. Clothes alone cannot end wars or undo tragedies, but they do allow for joy, expression and identity. When there’s a story to tell or a statement to make, the immediacy and impact of wearing it – embodying it – is hard to beat.


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