We can all picture it by now. Azure blue at the top, warm yellow at the bottom.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the colors of the Ukrainian flag have been popping up everywhere we look. From light projections on global landmarks to celebrities on the red carpet to companies updating their logos, people around the world have turned the Ukrainian flag colors into a symbol of solidarity and quiet resistance.
Twenty days into a war that has killed and injured thousands of Ukrainians and destroyed upwards of $100 billion worth of infrastructure, color has become a powerful communication tool. And while it may seem trivial, the practice is rooted in a centuries-old tradition of using color for protest.
“[The Ukrainian flag] lends itself so well to so many design disciplines,” says Camille Benda, head of costume design at California Institute of the Arts, School of Theater, who recently wrote a book about the visual language of protest through history. “Because it’s so simple and symmetrical, it can be used almost anywhere, and it’s very recognizable now that we know it.”
For Benda, the benefit of color is that it transcends language barriers. It’s also oozing with cultural connotations and symbolism: think pink for the feminists, or the rainbow for the LGBTQ+ movement. In most cases, the wave of Ukrainian colors could be read as a sign of support for the Ukrainian people; and in some instances, like the Russian woman who was spotted wearing a blue shawl and a bright yellow leather jacket on the metro, it could be interpreted as a symbol of quiet protest against the Russian invasion. Whichever camp you’re in, however, “it’s a perfect way to send a message,” says Benda. “It’s also an extremely obvious way with no subtlety to it.”
From fashion to buildings
Naturally, the level of subtlety can vary wildly. When Kate Middleton and Prince William visited the Ukrainian Cultural Center in London on March 9, she wore a “Ukrainian blue” sweater and a subtle flag pin. Meanwhile, at the SAG Awards, The Morning Show star Greta Lee donned a striking Marc Jacobs blue-and-yellow jumpsuit; and at Balenciaga’s Paris Fashion Week show, Salma Hayek wore a half-blue, half-yellow tunic. “It’s about scale, about appropriateness, and about the idea that protests can fit the occasion,” says Benda.
Awards season has amplified the fashion trend, but the Ukrainian colors have also found their way onto art murals in Paris, tennis outfits at the Indian Wells tournament in California, even cakes titled “Slava Ukraine” in a Warsaw, Poland, bakery. And some companies, like Grammarly and Slack, have temporarily rebranded their logos with Ukrainian colors.
Perhaps the most visible statement, however, has been projections on building facades and architectural landmarks all around the world. From the Eiffel Tower to the Brandenburg Gate to the Empire State Building, buildings have been lit up in solidarity with the Ukrainian people, much like in 2015, when the colors of the French flag were projected around the world, after a series of shootings in Paris left more than 120 people dead.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge recently embraced alternating blue and yellow colors on its concrete pilings. An abandoned hotel in Moldova was painted in Ukrainian colors. And in a show of dissent, the Russian embassy‘s facade in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, was taken over by neighbors who have been projecting the Ukrainian colors on the building, much to the Russian ambassador’s alleged dismay.
Color in historical protests
Ukraine has used color in protests before, but it wasn’t the colors of its own flag. In 2004, after Putin-backed Viktor Yanukovych was declared the winner of a presidential vote marred by corruption and fraud, protesters took to the streets clad in orange, the color of Yanukovych’s opponent Viktor Yushchenko. The protests came to be known as the Orange Revolution—and helped bring Yushchenko to power.
The use of color as a tool for protest, however, goes back even further. During the French Revolution, revolutionaries wore little red, white, and blue ribbons on their hats when they stormed the Bastille in 1789. Centuries later, protesters during Iran’s Green Movement in 2007 filled the streets of Tehran and other cities with 100-foot-long green fabric banners, scarves, and fabric wrapped around their wrists. And in the U.S., during the 2017 Women’s March after Donald Trump was elected president, thousands of women across the country wore pink knitted hats in a movement that went so viral that America ran out of pink yarn.
Benda says color can mean different things to different cultures, but its true power lies in its ability to unify people around the same cause. Unlike, say, white, which is associated with funerals in China and weddings in Western culture, the colors of the Ukrainian flag convey the exact same message around the world.
“Here,” she says, “it’s unambiguous.”