Donald Trump

What did Melania Trump wear in Saudi Arabia? And why it matters

Michelle Obama had earned praise for her decision not to cover her head but Donald Trump at the time tweeted his disapproval

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 May, 2017, 8:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 May, 2017, 8:33pm

What women wear can often be the focus of critique and controversy – all the more so when the woman is an ex-model, married to the US president and disembarking in Saudi Arabia.

The question of what first lady Melania Trump would wear on her husband’s his first foreign trip echoes similar debates around Michelle Obama’s decision to wear colour – blue and white – and not cover her hair on a visit to ultraconservative Saudi Arabia.

But with Trump’s hawkish political profile, and the first lady’s insider position in the world of fashion, buzz around what the president’s wife would wear and whether that would include a headscarf was at a high in the hours before Air Force One touched down in Riyadh.

Melania Trump embarked on Marine One at the White House on Friday in a high-waisted midi pencil skirt in orange leather with a front split, a cream crewneck sweater with bows at the cuffs and a pair of sky-high nude Manolos.

Vogue magazine swiftly identified the sweater as MaxMara and the skirt as tomato-red by Herve Pierre, the designer behind Melania’s white inauguration gown.

When she emerged at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport the next morning, the first lady’s attire was more conservative – black patent stilettos and a black long-sleeved, wide-leg jumpsuit with a narrow slit down the neckline, cinched at the waist with a wide gold belt. And like Michelle Obama, and Obama’s predecessor Laura Bush, Melania Trump did not cover her hair.

Obama had earned praise for her decision not to cover her head, but Donald Trump at the time tweeted his disapproval.

“Many people are saying it was wonderful that Mrs. Obama refused to wear a scarf in Saudi Arabia, but they were insulted. We have enuf enemies,” read a January 29, 2015 tweet on Trump’s personal account.

The official portrait of first lady Melania Trump has divided US public opinion

Trump’s daughter and advisor Ivanka also did not have her hair covered when she emerged from Air Force One in a long-sleeved black-and-white maxi dress, holding her husband Jared Kushner’s hand.

Anticipation around what Melania and Ivanka would wear during the visit had been building for days: Saudi Arabia is a religious state with some of the world’s harshest restrictions on women.

Many people are saying it was wonderful that Mrs. Obama refused to wear a scarf in Saudi Arabia, but they were insulted
Donald Trump’s tweet in 2015

Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system prohibits women from driving and from studying or travelling without permission from a male guardian, in the form of a father, brother or husband. Women are also expected to wear long black abaya robes and cover their hair in public in Riyadh.

The country is at a potentially unprecedented crossroads, with its future identity at stake as economic and political interests have brought to the limelight longstanding gender norms.

Local media on Thursday quoted Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister as saying authorities did not demand anyone adhere to any specific clothing regulations.

The US State Department’s website says women who choose not to conform to wearing “a full-length black covering known as an abaya, and cover their heads ... face a risk of confrontation by Mutawwa and possible detention/arrest” in Saudi Arabia.

The Mutawwa, which literally translates to “volunteers” from Arabic, are Saudi Arabia’s Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, known as the “morality police”.

Following accusations the Mutawwa were abusing their power, Saudi Arabia last year announced the religious police could no longer arrest suspects or request identification.