APEC Tradition Set Aside as Obama Rules Out Aloha Shirts

November 14, 2011 - 4:13 AM

APEC leaders in Hawaii

APEC leaders, from left, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, U.S. President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera walk to the group photo during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011, in Kapolei, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Honolulu (AP) – Chinese President Hu Jintao in pastels and plumerias? Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sporting pineapples and palm trees? It didn't happen.

President Barack Obama on Sunday chose not to continue a tradition started by President Bill Clinton nearly two decades ago.

Leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Obama's native Hawaii were photographed together in the customary, stodgy presidential wear – neckties and dark suits – not the casual, colorful Hawaiian aloha shirts that many were hoping to see them in.

There wasn't even a single floral lei.

"I got rid of the Hawaiian shirts because I looked at pictures of some of the previous APEC meetings and some of the garb that appeared previously and I thought this might be a tradition that we might want to break," Obama said late Sunday. "I suggested to leaders, we gave them a shirt and I promise you if they wanted to wear it that would have been fine but I didn't hear a lot of complaints about breaking precedent."

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard stood out by contrast with her white jacket and reddish blouse. The leaders smiled for the quick shot for a sea of photographers amid a backdrop of tropical trees and the blue Pacific Ocean.

As the leaders walked toward the APEC photo platform, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera Echenique even asked Obama, "Where are the Hawaiian shirts?"

"We are ending that tradition," Obama replied.

Heads of states have posed together in the traditional costumes of the host nation each year at APEC, often making it one of the lighter and memorable moments of the forum. The tradition began the last time the United States hosted APEC. In 1993, Clinton handed out bomber jackets for leaders to wear in their commemorative group photo in the Seattle area.

The custom continued through the years: silk tangzhuang jackets in China; long, flowing hanboks in South Korea; ponchos in Peru and sailing jackets in New Zealand.

To see leaders in aloha attire was a golden opportunity to market tourism-dependent, cash-strapped Hawaii. The shirts are a symbol of the multicultural history of Hawaii and widely accepted here for everyone from tourists sipping umbrella-adorned drinks beachside to bureaucrats in downtown.

Obama hinted that he would skip the shirts at a dinner Saturday he hosted for the leaders.

"Two years ago, when I was in Singapore and it was announced that we would be hosting the APEC Summit here in Honolulu, I promised that you would all have to wear aloha shirts or grass skirts," Obama said. "But I was persuaded by our team to perhaps break tradition, and so we have not required you to wear your aloha shirts, although I understand that a few of you have tried them on for size, and we may yet see you in them in the next several days."

APEC 2008

In a tradition started by President Bill Clinton nearly two decades ago, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders attending annual summits have donned traditional clothing from host nations. Here President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso don Andean ponchos during the 2008 event, hosted by Peru. (AP Photo)

While the Asia-Pacific leaders didn't don the shirts, there was plenty of aloha around.

The APEC host committee had more than 2,000 special APEC aloha shirts made for volunteers. Some Honolulu police officers assigned to crowd control also wore aloha shirts.

The shirts first emerged in Hawaii in the 1930s and became accepted business wear in the islands by the 1960s. Designs often carry patterns or fabrics representing many of the Asia-Pacific cultures found here and feature scenes of Hawaii.

They have been worn for decades by celebrities and politicians visiting the islands, from Elvis Presley to Richard Nixon. Hu even wore a brown and green patterned one to a luncheon with Hawaii's governor when he stopped here as China's vice president in 2002.

Obama, however, isn't the first to skip the tradition. Last year, the host nation Japan skipped the ritual for the first time. Officials cited a tight schedule, and said tight-fitting traditional kimonos might not be suitable for a photo session. The leaders instead wore jackets, slacks, and shirts without neckties to their photo.

All eyes will now be on next year's APEC host, Russia, to see if it revives the tradition and dresses the leaders in rubashka shirts or ushanka fur hats.

(AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller in Kapolei, Hawaii, contributed to this report.)