On the third Thursday in May, Ukrainians at home and abroad celebrate Vyshyvanka Day. The vyshyvanka is a traditional, Ukrainian-embroidered shirt, typically made of linen but now available in various materials. Celebrants usually partake in flashmobs dressed in their vyshyvankas, and non-Ukrainian friends and family members often also take part.
Since Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity” in 2014, there has been a greater push for Ukrainian language and culture in a country that long languished under Moscow’s grip and continues to be heavily influenced by its Soviet past.
This year, the informal holiday took place on May 20, but a scandal erupted online when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office posted an official photo for the event.
Standing next to his wife, Zelensky appeared to be wearing a traditional Russian shirt known as a kosovorotka. The photo was hit by a crush of criticism inside Ukraine, where Zelensky’s political opponents have long portrayed him as too conciliatory toward Russia, seven years after it has invaded and occupied part of Ukraine.
But Russian officials also mocked the photo. Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency quoted the country’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, who wrote about the flap on Facebook:
“Everything is mixed up in the house of Zelensky,” she wrote. “Volodymyr Oleksandrovych [Zelensky] celebrating Vyshyvanka Day in a kosovorotka is priceless.”
That is false. In fact, Zelensky was not wearing a shirt with a Russian design.
To be sure, the shirt resembles a Russian style and looks very different from the traditional Ukrainian vyshyvanka, whose most recognizable feature is the rectangular embroidered panel extending down from the collar. But, according to an article published by the fashion magazine Vogue in Ukraine, the style has roots in Ukraine.
The shirts Zelensky and his wife Olena were wearing in the photo were custom-designed by the Ukrainian fashion design brand ARTEMKLIMCHUK. According to Vogue Ukraine, the designers found the embroidery pattern in a museum in Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region, and the design as a whole hails from that part of the country.
“When creating the embroidered shirt for Volodymyr, we took the national costume of the Dnipro region as a basis,” the designer Artem Klimchuk told Vogue Ukraine.
“For the east of Ukraine, the side hem on the shirt was a fairly typical element, very popular in the 19th century.”
That explanation failed to satisfy everyone. The independent Ukrainian news agency Hromadske reported that “according to ethnographers, this outfit is neither a Russian shirt nor a traditional Ukrainian one, but a rather mediocre modern design.”
Ukraine was still part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, so the Dnipro-region design could well have been influenced by Russian fashions. The kosovorotka's most notable feature is an off-center opening below the collar, hence some of the resemblance to Zelensky's shirt. Some examples can be seen in Pinterest.