What a Difference a Braid Makes

Why Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko's famous hairstyle is a calculated, and possibly brilliant, political move.

Shahar Atwan
Shahar Atwan

Looking back, it is hard to think of more heroic circumstances for former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's release from prison – following a lightning decision by the Ukrainian parliament, after three months of stubborn protest and bloody struggle to depose President Viktor Yanukovych.

Tymoshenko’s release after three years in jail indeed seemed like a heroic moment. A few hours after, she was rushed to Kiev’s Independence Square, she called on the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to continue to protest, but even to her supporters that was certainly a moment of mixed feelings. On the one hand great joy and on the other hand, sadness at the sight of the leader, who only a decade ago led the “Orange Revolution,” hunched over and confined to a wheelchair.

It is difficult to ignore the fact that Tymoshenko is paler than the colorful portrait on giant signs displayed in the square. That photograph was taken at the time when Tymoshenko looked after her appearance with almost religious zealousness. Now, dressed in black that recalled nothing of her fashionable period, she looked like a crushed actress who had long ago given her best performance and has trouble coming to terms with her faded glory.

But those who sought a hint of Tymoshenko’s possible comeback could easily see it that evening in the square, in her trademark – her head haloed by the peasant braid that her supporters call the “wheel of state.” That was a reminder, for those who have forgotten, that Tymoshenko created her public image a dozen years ago under circumstances quite similar to the current ones: In 2001, five years after she entered parliament, during the term of President Leonid Kuchma, she was the victim of a political plot and served a short prison term after being convicted of corruption. A few weeks later she was exonerated and to a certain extent reborn.

Right after her release from prison she changed her image, lightened her hair and began to braid it and wear designer, peasant-inspired outfits. Today one can confidently say that the peasant image she adopted was a well-calculated move, distancing her far from the wealth and hints of corruption that had adhered to her, and stressing her national Ukrainian identity – the same identity that helped her to be appointed prime minister in 2005.

The man who claimed responsibility for her hairdo – also called a “Ukrainian braid” and a “Yulia” – was her image consultant at the time, Oleg Pokalchuk. He told the BBC in an interview that since Tymoshenko did not speak Ukrainian at the start of her political career, and he knew how important the nationalist issue was in Ukraine, he wanted to create an appearance for her of a village schoolteacher, a kind of archetype of the Ukrainian woman. According to Pokalchuk, he took the idea for the braid from a statue, which he could see from his window, of the Ukrainian poetess Lesya Ukrainka (Larisa Petrovna Kosach-Kvitka, 1871–1913), among the most outstanding of Ukraine's literary figures.

Tymoshenko tells a different version by which she was the one who came up with the hairdo, which takes her seven minutes a day. Either way, there is no doubt about the status of the braid in the creation of a political persona, just as there is no denying that Tymoshenko is a stateswoman who makes wise use of her appearance. Perhaps that is why the Ukrainian media decided to attack the braid in 2002 and claim that it was not her real hair and that she used a special book on hair design to create it. Tymoshenko rose to the challenge, and she undid and re-braided her hair in public in front of camera crews.

As of 2009, the braid had its own album on Tymoshenko’s official website. Among other things it followed the impact of the braid on fashion styles internationally. In 2007, for example, singer Kylie Minogue put out a calendar and for the month of November (Tymoshenko’s birthday month) she sported a “Lady Yu” braid. During that time, fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez produced a special perfume, called “For Her,” for Tymoshenko, and the model Carmen Kass was selected as the image for the scent, wearing the Yulia braid.

But the braid is only part of the story. In addition to her heartrending speeches, her personal charm and her looks also contributed to her success, as did her fashions, based mainly on skirt suits or dresses with solid colors, with quite a few nods to religion and folklore. All of this gave her the status of a fashion icon in Ukraine and abroad (as prime minister she appeared on the cover of Elle in a designer outfit). However, she also managed to anger many people at home, who claimed that her spectacular and quite costly wardrobe was too ostentatious for times of economic recession. After she was appointed prime minister, some people claimed that her pleasing and well-groomed appearance were a cover for a harsh temperament reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher, one of her heroes. And indeed, in her homeland she is known, among other things, as the Iron Lady or simply called “she.”

Even at a time when power suits were the only option open to female politicians and businesswomen, Tymoshenko promoted a new range of possibilities, with her braided, flaxen hair and her feminine blouses, on the seam between a promethean figure to emulate and a martyr. If there is a lesson to be learned from her personal story, it is that sometimes the power to take on new forms is enough to survive.

Anti-government protesters stand in front of a banner with a portrait of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in central Kiev February 8, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko arrives to visit the tent camp of her supporters in the center of Kiev on February 28, 2014.Credit: AFP

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