The First Lady, Michelle Obama, bared her head in Saudi Arabia, but covered it at the Vatican and at an Indonesian mosque. Laura Bush wore a head scarf only briefly in Saudi Arabia and to tour the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Hillary Rodham Clinton covered her head in Eritrea, the West Bank and Pakistan, but did not in Saudi Arabia.
Obama inspired headlines and Internet chatter when she was photographed without headgear during a visit with President Barack Obama to Riyadh, the capital of a conservative Muslim kingdom where women are compelled to cover their heads. But her attire was in keeping with diplomatic protocol and long-standing custom for Western women visiting Saudi Arabia.
And that is no accident.
There are dozens of rules and customs that govern what an American first lady should wear and what she should not while visiting other countries, and first ladies have to follow them all.
“Mrs Obama always wanted to be briefed completely on all the cultural traditions, from food to greetings to attire, and we would prepare a detailed memo before each trip,” said Capricia Penavic Marshall, who was chief of protocol for the US from 2009 to 2013.
“These are not unilateral decisions,” Marshall said. “It is very carefully planned.” Obama in particular, she added, “likes to be well-informed”.
Adhering to the rules is an elaborate business for first ladies whose every outfit is scrutinised for political significance and cultural import, particularly when travelling to countries where customs bear little resemblance to Western practice.
When Bush travelled to Saudi Arabia as first lady in 2007, she went bareheaded in public almost the entire time. But when a group of breast cancer survivors she met with surprised her with a handmade black hijab with tinges of pink that signify breast cancer awareness, she immediately put it on in solidarity.
“It was a very organic moment,” said Anita McBride, Bush’s chief of staff at the time. “Anyone would have done it. But there was a little bit of a flap about it.”
The hijab was a rare spontaneous episode in what are otherwise meticulously planned sartorial strategies on trips by first ladies. White House aides always prepare a “wardrobe memo” that accounts for cultural norms (head scarf or no?), climate and terrain (short sleeves or long? high heels or flats?), and the nature of the events (gown or suit?).
In Obama’s case, the stop in Saudi Arabia was a late addition to her itinerary for a trip that was initially planned only as a visit to India. When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died on January 23, the president hastily changed his plans and diverted to Riyadh to pay respects.
The First Lady dressed modestly, in loose-fitting black pants and a blue tunic-length blouse, with a three-quarter-length coat in a matching print.
Some Saudi bloggers criticised her on Twitter, using an Arabic hashtag that roughly translates to #MichelleObamaUnveiled. Many Westerners, including Republican Senator Ted Cruz, praised her for making a stand in defiance of Muslim law.
“It turned out to be much ado about nothing,” said Melanne Verveer, who as a top advisor to Clinton travelled extensively with her when Clinton was first lady. Like Obama in Indonesia in 2010 and Bush in Jerusalem, Clinton would cover her head when visiting a mosque, but not when meeting officials in Muslim countries.
“There may not be a code per se, but there was guidance from the State Department, and it was to be respectful,” said Verveer, now director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. “Don’t wear your sundress.”