Saudi Arabia's King Salman greeted President Obama as he arrived with first lady Michelle Obama in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. The president cut short a trip to India to pay his respects after the death of King Abdullah. (Reuters)

Like the attire of other first ladies, Michelle Obama's clothes have been scrutinized endlessly for what type of messages they convey.

And she gets high marks for her "fashion diplomacy," as she engages with foreign leaders at home and abroad. Her choice to go with a suit rather than a dress for the first time at this year's State of the Union address "was a glimpse of the self-aware, tough-minded, straight-talking lawyer who took a brief hiatus from the public eye," according to Robin Givhan.

So it is with Obama's attire in Saudi Arabia — a country with a very strict dress code for Saudi women, who are not allowed to drive and who live under a system of male guardianship. In a country that demands women adhere to a strict dress code in public (face and hair covered, and long, flowing robes), Obama went with a flowing blue top, black pants and no head covering.

Obama's choice is not without precedent. Laura Bush in a visit with King Abdullah made the same choice in 2006.


Photo by Greta Van Susteren

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice also wrote in her 2011 book about Abdullah offering her a gift of a black robe and veil that she refused to wear.

But Obama is much more associated with clothes and fashion; she sets trends and boosts brands. And in the age of social media, she has an unparalleled global audience.

On Twitter, her move sparked outrage, as reported by my colleague, Adam Taylor:

More than 1,500 tweets using the hashtag #ميشيل_أوباما_سفور (roughly, #Michelle_Obama_unveiled) were sent Tuesday, many of which criticized the first lady. Some users pointed out that on a recent trip to Indonesia, Michelle had worn a headscarf. Why not in Saudi Arabia?

 

Keep in mind that Michelle Obama does not make fashion choices lightly, particularly on the world stage. Her fashion choice comes as the late Saudi king Abdullah's legacy on women is considered in light of the ascension of Crown Prince Salman to the throne.

It's also a more social-media-friendly version of political messages delivered overtly by other first ladies.


President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama participate in a delegation receiving line with new Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, fifth from left, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The president and first lady have come to expresses their condolences on the death of the late Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In 1995, Hillary Rodham Clinton told an audience at the U.N. Women's Conference in Beijing, "Women's rights are human rights, and human rights are women's rights."

Ten years later, at the World Economic Forum in Jordan in 2005, Laura Bush also emphasized women's rights before a group of Arab leaders. She said: "Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression. It's the right to speak and vote and worship freely. Human rights require the rights of women. And human rights are empty promises without human liberty."

The Saudi delegation of leaders walked out before she got to that line, something she notes in her book, "Spoken from the Heart."

Ten years after that, Obama, this time with her fashion, has made a similar statement.

Bush said in 2005 that "women who have not yet won these rights are watching," and Obama, in Saudi Arabia with no headscarf and in slacks, makes the message that much easier to see.

Updated at 11:03 a.m.

Updated 2:35 p.m.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz took to his Facebook page to applaud Michelle Obama:

Ted Cruz

Read our related stories on Saudi Arabia:

Michelle Obama forgoes a headscarf and speaks a backlash in Saudi Arabia
Obama's Saudi trip shows an American double standard
Flogging highlights Saudi Arabia's crackdown on activists
How Saudi Arabia's punishment compares with Islamic State's
Abdullah's death sets up complex succession process