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The Polo. The Fleece. The Tee: The Sartorial Statement Behind Crisis Clothing

Chris Christie’s Hurricane Sandy fleece. Andrew Cuomo’s pandemic briefing polo. Volodymyr Zelensky’s Russian invasion T-shirt. It seems like when the going gets tough, the tough—or those who seek to convey the image of toughness, at any rate—will ditch the suit and tie for a different kind of work uniform.

This isn’t by accident, said Carolyn Mair, author of “The Psychology of Fashion” and founder of psychology.fashion. In times of upheaval and uncertainty, it’s critical that nothing be left to misinterpretation. In fact, the more dramatic the shedding of formality the better, and not only because it signals the wearer’s readiness for action.

“Wearing more casual clothes is a statement that they are one of the people,” she told Sourcing Journal. “We warm to people who look like us, who represent who we are or who share our identity.”

Signature looks emerge in more peaceful times, as well: think Steve Jobs’s trademark black turtleneck or the grey T-shirt and denim jeans combo that Mark Zuckerberg wears on repeat. In her book, “Dress Your Best Life: How to Use Fashion Psychology to Take Your Look—and Your Life—to the Next Level,” fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen refers to this phenomenon as “repetitious wardrobe complex.” Its adopters, the “repeat offenders,” are “persons who wear the same outfit, to minimize their anxiety and to increase their productivity,” she told Sourcing Journal.

When emotions run high—and mental bandwidth is at a premium—taking on a uniform makes even more sense. “The last thing that someone wants to be concerned about is what they’re going to place on their bodies,” Karen added. “They also want to wear something that gives them a degree of control over their situations.”

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It’s because they’re replete with meaning that the looks can turn into cultural touchstones, too. Christie’s jacket (midnight blue, emblazoned with “Chris Christie, Governor”) wedged itself so deeply into the public consciousness that New Jersey’s former head honcho made it a part of his schtick for years. “It’s basically fused to my skin at this point,” he joked when he appeared on “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update segment to talk about hurricane recovery in 2012. “I’m gonna die in this fleece. But that’s O.K., it’s a good fleece.” Later, he thanked his wife for putting up with a “husband who has smelled like a wet fleece for the last three weeks.”

The following year, in a filmed bit for New Jersey’s annual Legislative Correspondents Club show—its version of Washington, D.C.’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner—the fleece’s sudden disappearance sparks panic. “There’s that guy again,” Bon Jovi, one of several celebrity cameos, says as Christie is seen in a growing state of desperation. “He ain’t nothing without his fleece.” Hilaria Baldwin, wife of actor Alec, is later revealed to have stolen it. “I’m his biggest fan,” she wails as she clutches at the garment.

In this Oct. 31, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama is greeted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie upon his arrival at Atlantic City International Airport, in Atlantic City, N.J. Obama traveled to region to take an aerial tour of the Atlantic Coast in New Jersey in areas damaged by superstorm Sandy. Ever since President George W. Bush's administration was crippled by its response to Hurricane Katrina, politicians and news organizations have been acutely aware of the stakes raised by big storms.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wears his now-signature navy blue fleece in a 2012 meeting with Former President Barack Obama. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File

When Covid-19 exploded from outbreak to full-fledged pandemic, it was pre-sex-scandal Cuomo’s turn to shine in the sartorial spotlight. “Alright, real talk: I am very soothed by Andrew Cuomo’s polo shirts,” Fashionista editor-in-chief wrote Tyler McCall in 2020. “They make me feel like there’s a grown-up in charge during this crisis.”

McCall explained that she was from Florida. “Back home, when a politician donned a polo shirt, it signaled that he or she was ready to roll up their sleeves and get dirty, usually after a natural disaster like a hurricane,” she said. ”I don’t know how much manual labor Governor Cuomo is doing these days, but clearly he’s mastered the art of using fashion as messaging in this situation.”

So large did the “big time Stern Dad vibes” of Cuomo’s polo (bright white, affixed with a New York state seal the size of a coaster) loom over the zeitgeist that it birthed its own conspiracy theories. Some wondered if the protrusions beneath the fabric were nipple barbells. Others surmised that the governor was wearing anti-chafing tape, a back brace or a bulletproof vest. Vice asked several professional piercers to take their own educated stabs at the mystery. “Do your nipples even lift, bro?” comedian Stephen Colbert deadpanned on his show at the height of #NippleGate. “My nipples can squat.”

There’s less to joke about in the worsening humanitarian crisis in Ukraine that has elevated Zelensky’s T-shirt (olive green, bearing the official emblem of Ukraine’s armed forces) to iconic status. Amid images of exploded buildings and bodies of the dead, the crewneck has emerged as “one of the defining images of the conflict” and a “metaphor in cloth for the growing narrative of a Russian Goliath and Ukrainian David, of hubris and heroism, that is being played out in blood and arms,” Vanessa Friedman, fashion director of the New York Times, wrote earlier this month.

And when economist Peter Schiff criticized the Ukrainian president for speaking to the U.S. Congress via teleconference in his T-shirt, not something more formal, he failed to grasp the symbolism of the act. (In any case, Zelensky also wore the same T-shirt when he addressed the European Parliament. And the French Parliament. And the British Parliament. And the Grammys.)

Something Nico Gavino, culture and consumer insights analyst at Fashion Snoops, a trend forecasting platform, found interesting about Zelensky’s T-shirt is the way it straddles humility and strength.

“On one hand, the T-shirt is the ultimate representation of modesty in clothing, but in army green and a close fit, we begin to associate it with combat,” he said. ”He conveys that he is in this fight just as much as his citizens. While people may not explicitly identify these details, the way that we process messages is influenced by sign vehicles like the clothing of the speaker.”

Zelensky’s T-shirt also stands in contrast with the Loro Piana puffer jacket that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, donned at a March 18 rally in Moscow. At $13,000, a cost 25 times the average Russian’s monthly salary, the look was certainly “not of the people” and in fact served to isolate him further. “He’s wearing high luxury while his people are suffering, you know?” Karen said. Putin is also a fan of high-end timepieces, including watches by Patek Philippe and Blancpain.

Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sported a white polo shirt during high-profile coronavirus briefings.
Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sported a white polo shirt during high-profile coronavirus briefings in March 2020. Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Though people might argue that fashion is an inconsequential footnote in a life-and-death struggle, clothing has long been a vehicle for transmitting unspoken messages—about class, about identity, even about politics. Fashion diplomacy, most often wielded by women as a form of soft power, is a field unto itself. Former First Lady Michelle Obama was an especially skilled practitioner, frequently choosing outfits by designers whose cultural backgrounds reflected the countries she visited or whose heads of state were being honored by the White House.

“While it may seem silly to unpack what seems like an arbitrary detail, the fact of the matter is the public does care what leaders wear during crises,” Gavino said. “Think of the uproar when former First Lady Melania Trump wore a jacket that said ‘I really don’t care, do u?’ [during] the US-Mexico border crisis in 2018. People do pay attention to these details.”

Whether sales of blue fleeces and green T-shirts get a boost during their time in the spotlight is uncertain, since it’s their wearers who make them remarkable, not the items themselves. There wasn’t a “Chris Christie effect” or “Andrew Cuomo effect” along the lines of the “Meghan Markle effect,” for instance. (Fashion search engine Lyst was unable to pull up any meaningful data.) Edited, a retail analytics platform, noted an uptick in “survivalist fashion,” though as a result of the pandemic and the climate crisis. You can also thank sci-fi blockbuster “Dune” for inspiring some of fall 2022’s biggest trends, such as cargo trousers and technical vests with streetwear and gorpcore references.

Mair is of two minds about whether people will be copping the Ukrainian president’s style. “Seeing Zelensky in his army-like clothing could encourage others to dress similarly,” she said. “Although, there are many who say dressing in camo or similar at this time trivializes the war and those who are fighting in it.”

Gavino, on the other hand, thinks that any “Volodymyr Zelensky effect,” in terms of how the Ukraine-Russian crisis influences broader fashion, will arise from a different quarter: as a backlash against conspicuous consumption, as seen during the 2008 Great Recession and the early days of the pandemic.

“On a broader scale, this tendency for casual crisis dressing can be understood as a microcosm for our collective responses to ongoing disasters,” he said. “It’s reasonable to speculate that a similar effect could take place in the coming months.”