In Washington, Elena Zelenskaya dressed for Ukraine

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

But despite the fact that for the first two days of her trip, she did what could be called typical first lady activities — posing mostly with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in his office; warmly welcoming President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, who greeted her with a bouquet of flowers; in a variety of dresses and suits from Ukrainian designers, with hints of the colors of the Ukrainian flag – she was not like she said in her speechto talk about typical first lady stuff.

“Usually, the wives of presidents are exclusively engaged in peaceful affairs,” she said, standing in the Capitol in a black suit dress from the Ukrainian label AMG, a piece of white fabric bisected one side of the jacket. “Education, human rights, equality, accessibility”.

Instead of all this, she said, she was there to ask for weapons, “weapons that will be used not to make war on foreign soil, but to protect your home and the right to make life in that home.”

It was an emotional, uncompromising appeal framed by photographs of Ukrainian devastation, murdered and maimed children, heightened by the contrast between the familiar, unsharply focused optics of the woman standing in front of lawmakers and the harsh words she spoke. The image was in black and white (literally) a reminder of how much her work had changed because of the war. That the “normality” of everyday life, as she said in her speech, has left Ukraine.

It was also a reminder that, as in times of peace, the first lady’s role is to act as the symbolic mother (and mistress) of the nation, in times of violence she is still its human face; a bridge between the familiar and the unknowable.

In such a context, every choice of the first lady, every gesture becomes ammunition to be used on the 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 participate in her conversations with influencers, but will be able to see photos.

For example, they can recognize “common values” (as Ms. Zelenskaya called them) between themselves and a civilian in a camouflage suit with a thin skirt, which they might not associate with a soldier in real camouflage.

It was obvious from the first day of Ms. Zelenskaya’s visit is that she understood the mission to the smallest detail. While first ladies supporting local designers to advance their business and reputation on the global stage has become an unspoken part of the job, her wardrobe strategy (because it is) has gone beyond mere boosterism.

Her olive green dress – strong shoulders, a one-piece scarf around the neck – mirrors the husband’s signature uniform or olive green T-shirt, spoke about the traditions of military clothing and at the same time symbolized the history of refugees. Designer Lilia Litkovskaya (whose clothes were often worn by Ms. Zelenskaya) fled Kyiv with her husband and young child and is now in Paris, where she promotes and supports Ukrainian fashion from afar.

RS. Zelenskaya wore a pin on her dress that reflected traditional Ukrainian floral embroidery. It was from the Ukrainian jewelry line Guzema, part of the Nezalezhna, or “Independent” collection. her earrings were the pair she wore for her husband’s inauguration in 2019.

She wore the Independent Earrings again the next day when she met the Bidens, this time wearing a light lemon yellow skirt suit from Ms. Litkovskaya, which she wore with light blue shoes as a sign of respect for the colors of her country.

(For those who doubt that this was some sort of first lady show-off, consider that for the photo shoot, Dr. Biden chose a navy blue dress studded with daisies, paired with bright yellow shoes. And this is in speech earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she said that for the State of the Union, she had sunflowers, Ukraine’s national flower, sewn to the sleeves of her blue dress because “I was sending a message without saying a word: that Ukraine was in our hearts — and that we stood with them.”)

And then there was Miss. Zelenskaya’s costume for a speech before Congress. Against the background of the restraint of the black jacket, it was impossible not to notice a strip of white, covered with traditional Ukrainian embroidery. Beneath her words—“while Russia kills, America saves”—was a clear reminder that, depending on what happened next, light could come out of the darkness. A map of hope worn on the body for all to see.