Wednesday, November 16, 2011

APEC: Bring Back the Silly Shirts!

People who follow the yearly Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting of leaders were in for a rude awakening last weekend. President Barrack Obama, host of the 2012 APEC Summit, did away with the traditional silly shirts for the “APEC leaders family photo.” Yes, people call it the silly shirts. Instead, the world leaders donned suits in Honolulu, Hawaii and stood beneath towering coconut trees for the photograph last November 13, 2011. Many were shocked, others were surprised and probably some were relieved. A number of journalists, commentators and followers of this annual tradition are clamoring for the return of the silly shirts.


21 countries from the Pacific Rim make up the member economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or APEC. Each year, they meet to discuss economic cooperation, free trade, and other matters along that line. The location for the yearly meeting rotates among the different member economies. The very first APEC Leader’s Meeting was held in 1993 in Seattle when leadership of the U.S. belonged to President Bill Clinton. APEC chic was born the same year as President Clinton gifted each APEC leader with a leather bomber (bombardier) jacket to be worn for the photo call. Previous to 1993, only foreign trade ministers held meetings.

Today, the 21 member nations are:

Brunei Darussalam
People's Republic of China
Hong Kong
Republic of South Korea
New Zealand
Papua New Guinea
Republic of the Philippines
Chinese Taipei (Taiwan)
United States

History of the silly shirts

The so-called “silly shirts” are not actually silly shirts but the host country’s traditional clothing; clothing that reflects the host member’s tradition and culture. The wearing of the host’s chosen national attire was an opportunity for the multi-cultural APEC leaders to don something symbolic and traditional from a country not their own. Granting that not everyone can look good in a particular piece of clothing, it was still a good way to connect with the people and the culture of the APEC host country.

If a particular world leader does not look good in the host country’s chosen outfit, it’s not like Heidi Klum of Project Runway or Tyra Banks of America’s Next Top Model will suddenly appear to say “you’re out” or that “you are no longer in the running to be a member of APEC.” In fact, this tradition kind of humanizes the leaders. It softens them. Makes them look more approachable. The ponchos may have put smiles on the faces of people looking at the photos. However, there were particular traditional shirts such as the Philippine barong that made the male leaders look dashing and debonair!

Curious as to what APEC leaders have worn in the past? Here’s a rundown of the previous APEC meeting’s fashion:

Year/Host country/Traditional outfit

1994 Indonesia (Batik shirts)
1995 Japan (Business suits)
1996 Philippines (Barong shirts)
1997 Canada (Leather jackets)
1998 Malaysia (Batik shirts)
1999 New Zealand (Sailing jackets)
2000 Brunei Darussalam (Kain Tenunan shirts)
2001 People's Republic of China (Tangzhuang shirts)
2002 Mexico (Guayabera shirts for men/Huipíles for women)
2003 Thailand (Brocade shirts for men/Brocade shawls for women)
2004 Chile (Chamantos)
2005 Republic of Korea (Hanboks)
2006 Vietnam (Áo dài)
2007 Australia (Drizabones and Akubra Hats)
2008 Peru (Ponchos)
2009 Singapore (Peranakan-inspired designer shirts)
2010 Japan (Smart casual)
2011 United States (Business suits)

Why no Hawaiian shirts this year

It was actually during last year’s APEC summit that the tradition of wearing the host country’s traditional clothing was broken. The 2010 APEC meeting was held in Yohohama, Japan and smart casual was the prescribed dress code. An unnamed Japanese official said that the reason for breaking with tradition was because the kimono, which was expected to be form fitting when worn, would not be comfortable at all and that the traditional Japanese garb was not suited for the session.

When President Obama announced sometime ago that the 2011 APEC meeting will be in his birthplace, Hawaii, he joked that the Pacific Rim leaders will be “in flowered shirts and grass skirts.” Alas, President Obama did not hold true to his statement. Instead, he took all the fun away and put an end to a much-awaited 20-year old tradition. Chilean President Piñera Echenique was said to have asked during this year’s APEC meeting, “Where are the Hawaiian shirts?” The U.S. President was said to have replied that the tradition was to end in Hawaii.

President Obama did give away tropical shirts but did not require his fellow leaders to wear them. He said that his team persuaded him to do away with the tradition and that there were not many complaints about it from the APEC leaders. Plus, wearing such happy-go-lucky looking outfits might send the wrong message across the globe. After all, the global economy is still not in the pink of health for many nations.

To begin with, it’s possible that a few of the APEC leaders were not exactly looking forward to looking like Magnum P.I. (although he makes the loud and boxy Hawaiian shirt look mighty fine). But still, the leaders of the member economies were robbed of the opportunity to either enjoy the moment or cringe all the way through the photo-op. The public was also robbed of the opportunity to make fun of the whole situation. During times like this, a smile, a snicker or a big belly laugh can help erase, even for a moment, the economic worries of the day. It gives people something else to focus on that amusing.

In 2012, the APEC leader’s meeting will be held in Vladivostok, Russia. Hopefully, the whole world will once again see its’ APEC leaders in the traditional outfit of the host country. People from all over the world will be wondering whether they will see their leaders in beautiful belted or un-belted Kosovorotka (traditional Russian skewed-collar shirts) or linen tunics perhaps. Fur hats should be optional, though.


Anna said...

I didn't know of this tradition. I wonder who thought of naming traditional garb "silly shirts." It sounded something found in common clothing manufacturers stores.

Xander Lawson said...

They really should bring them back. Whether it's top of the line garb or cheap mens designer clothes, it's always better if the design was a little creative.

Angel17 said...

Thank you for this wonderful website and thank you for sharing the History of the silly shirts.
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