When in Rome
Bill and Hillary Clinton don’t always get respect at home for their attire, but when they venture out into the ‘world, it’s a different story. When the First Lady wore a head scarf in Pakistan last March and the President donned a yarmulke at Babi Yar in May, their hosts were honored. “It’s important for the First Couple to be overzealous about their attire when they travel,” explains etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige, who researched overseas protocol as Jackie Kennedy’s chief of staff. “They’re trying to please the people of that country and represent America to the best of their ability.”
Fashion diplomacy dates back decades. Even shy Calvin Coolidge knew the importance of generating goodwill by being photographed in full headdress when the Sioux made him an honorary tribal member in 1923. Eleanor Roosevelt posed in a grass skirt with Australian aborigines in 1943, and in 1974, after Leonid Brezhnev admired Gerald Ford’s wolfskin parka in Vladivostok, the President gave him the jacket right off his back.
When the Clintons go abroad, an advance team precedes them, scoping out the climate and the customs of the region. “We give the First Lady practical advice,” says her deputy press secretary Neel Lattimore, who may advise Mrs. Clinton to keep her shoulders covered to show religious respect, or to bring along practical shoes for cobblestone streets. “From there,” says Lattimore, “she works with friends and takes suggestions about what to wear.” The same goes for the President, although staffers also provide Mr. Clinton’s hosts with his size in case he is presented with special garments, such as the batik shirt he wore in Indonesia last November.
In addition to promoting brotherhood, going native has a few side benefits. While visiting Pakistan last spring, Mrs. Clinton said that she was thinking of wearing her billowing tunics, pants and scarves back home. That way, she said, people might stop talking about her hairstyles.