At first I dismissed it as fake, the image was so ridiculous: French President Emmanuel Macron, holding a file of documents, his face unshaven and wearing a hoodie with the logo of CPA 10, a branch of the special forces of the country. Flanked by the classic details and gold decorations of the state rooms in the Elysée Palace, his outfit choice seemed totally out of balance.

“Zelensky cosplay” the internet screamed as Macron’s sartorial debt to the Ukrainian president became clear. Though my first thoughts upon seeing this aberration, captured with a raised eyebrow and grinning, were of Jason Bourne meets The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau.

Rather than fake, the images are part of a growing archive of images by Soazig de la Moissonnière, a former photojournalist who has been Macron’s lead photographer since 2016, and one of a growing number of photographers used to take candid shots of the career of a politician. The president’s personal photographer, first used by JFK, who employed Cecil W Stoughton to capture him in the office, would offer a public service: Pete Souza, for example, captured intimate moments with Barack Obama in the White House, photos that helped seal his image as a man of principle and compassion.

More recently, however, these on-site portraitists have become part of what appears to be a monstrous vanity project. The images of de la Moissonnière have already contributed much to the meme surrounding Macron’s war effort. Another equally chilling series of photos, taken in the run-up to the Russian invasion, finds him clutching his head in fear after anxious diplomacy exchanges, dubbed #sadMacron by Twitter users.

Ukrainians should be touched that [Macron] is such a fan boy of their leader that he plays dressed up while posing from the comfort of the palace

Six weeks before a leadership election, positioned as one of the key players in the peace talks, Macron has taken on a more unpolished image. The casual sweat, the carelessness, the sloppy masculinity: these are all motives that owe a lot to Volodymyr Zelensky. And, presumably, Ukrainians must be moved that the president is such a fan of their leader that he plays dress-up games while posing from the comfort of the palace.

But while Macron’s attempts to match Zelensky in attitude are shameful, they do speak against the politics of a war leader’s wardrobe. That Macron, from the impeccably tapered trouser lengths and immaculate white cuffs, has started rolling out the sweatshirts speaks to a new desire among officials to catch some of that Zelensky “everyone” chutzpah.

And while it may seem laughable for world leaders to dress as someone actually sitting in a bomb shelter to bolster their credentials, the war hoodie has become a useful way for leaders in this crisis to show their sympathy. Putin, who still insists that Russia is engaged in a “special military operation” in Ukraine, is wearing only suits. When you put on your paratrooper hoodie, at least you know there’s war going on.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in T-shirt and hoodie instead of body armor © Ukrainian Presidential Press Services/AFP via Getty Images

Zelensky, meanwhile, has emerged as a modern icon in his dusty battles. And while his outfit was clearly not a top priority in his planning, one can only imagine that the former television star has been a careful student of his wardrobe choices.

An actor whose presidency has spanned years between the worlds of fact and fiction, Zelensky has refined his public image in tandem with an evolution on the screen: in just two weeks he can already be captured in a pen sketch, the unshaven man with a three-day goatee who always wears a khaki T-shirt and sometimes a zip-up hoodie. The austere look is a constant reminder that he represents the ordinary Ukrainian: there are no shoddy or fancy extras.

More importantly, he refutes allegations that he left his capital by walking around Kiev without wearing any apparent protection. Avoiding the normal body armor you would expect from politicians in a war zone, Zelensky’s choice was an extraordinarily brave one. By insisting that the world see how vulnerable he is, he has emerged as the world’s strongest and most charismatic leader.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, centre, has pledged to help Putin and has a penchant for Prada boots © Yelena Afonina/Tass via Reuters

It is an astonishing contrast when you consider the guerrilla fighting and the gray uniform of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen Putin loyalist who announced last weekend that he would support the Russian effort. However, the impression of his unyielding wild vigilance is somewhat dispelled by the delightful discovery that the man is wearing AW19 season Prada combat boots that cost $1,500. Out of love for God, the vanity of some men is absolutely shocking. I know very little about combat, but I can tell you it will be an absolute disaster trying to run in those giant studded soles.

Email Jo at jo.ellison@ft.com

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This post Macron, Zelensky and the Appearance of Leadership was original published at “https://www.ft.com/content/cc941fe7-82a1-42fb-9459-f7108ffe8781”

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