APEC’s Silly Shirt Day, The Bizarre Tradition That Refuses To Die

APEC Shirts Beijing 2014

Yesterday’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting was marked by the return of odd tradition that has seemed to define these international conferences, a day that can only be called Silly Shirt Day:

Every year at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting, leaders from 21 Pacific Rim member states meet to discuss the big issues. This year, for instance, huge trade deals and geopolitical rivalries are among the major topics of conversation.

These are some of the most important leaders in the world, together representing more than half of the world’s GDP and encompassing heavyweights such as the United States, China and Russia. But each year, it’s often the guests’ attire that captivates the world more than any political talk.

That’s because APEC has an unusual tradition. At the summit, the leaders gather to take a “family photo,” and for more than a decade these leaders have often been photographed wearing clothing that represents the country hosting the event. For example, this year the event is being held in Beijing, and the leaders wore some bright colored silk outfits, which look like they might be modeled on the famous Zhongshan suit.

The event sometimes earns the nickname of the “silly shirts” photo, and various world leaders (including Americans) have tried to do away with it. But American readers might need to be reminded that they started this tradition with their own traditional clothing: And it actually wasn’t a shirt.

The tradition began in 1993 on Washington state’s Blake Island, site of the first APEC meeting to be attended by heads of state rather than ministerial-level officials. The world leaders were asked to not wear ties; an attempt to cut down down on the formality that high-level meetings usually involve. APEC, which is about working together to improve relationships, had no time for formality.

Clinton gave the world leaders leather bombardier jackets as a gift, like those worn by American pilots. Judging from photos, the world leaders may not have actually worn their jackets publicly at the time — most featured only Clinton clad in leather, and many news stories from the time made no mention of it.

A nice idea I suppose, and it did lend a less formal feel to the conference:

Apec Shirts USA 1993

Things went native when the conference was held in Indonesia in 1994, but not alarmingly so:

APEC Shirts Indonesia 1994

It didn’t take long for things to get out of control, though. Consider the ponchos from Chile in 2004:


The ensemble donned in South Korea in 2005:

APEC Shirts Korea 2005

Or similar vestments when the conference was held in Vietnam in 2006:


The tradition came to an end in 2011, but quickly reappeared last year in Indonesia, which Secretary of State Kerry attended in President Obama’s place due to the President needing to stay home to deal with the ongoing government shutdown:


One wonders what next year, when the conference will be held in The Philippines, will bring. I’m sure it will be colorful, though.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Slugger says:

    Mr. Mataconis:
    I like the outfits. They are a good reminder that although the leaders of the world are talented and charismatic to a large extent they are vested in their power and authority by the social and political systems that convey their power and position. Take off their outfits, and they are somewhat more talented than the manager of your local convenience store. They deserve our respect but not our awe. Something that promotes a bit of humorful skepticism is a good thing.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Obviously the next conference should be held in Fort Lauderdale – bathing suits and muscle-T’s all around.

  3. wr says:

    The shirts are silly by definition because they’re not what Americans wear.

    Homer Simpson would be proud of Doug.

  4. Slugger says:

    One further thought. Today we are reminded of those who participated in our military. The 2006 picture of our President garbed in VietNamese celebratory clothes was thought provoking. Should we anticipate that the 2060 conference will be in Damascus with the American President wearing an ISIS fighter outfit?

  5. rodney dill says:

    What could be sillier than wearing a drab suit and necktie.

    (I had to add the word ‘drab’ only because of Don Cherry)

  6. Gustopher says:

    I like it. I wish we had similar things for normal people. Something like Halloween but with dressing up as other cultures rather than monsters.

  7. Franklin says:

    @michael reynolds: I think Putin would enjoy that too much.

  8. Barry says:

    @Slugger: “The 2006 picture of our President garbed in VietNamese celebratory clothes was thought provoking. Should we anticipate that the 2060 conference will be in Damascus with the American President wearing an ISIS fighter outfit?”

    Are you aware that ‘VietNamese celebratory clothes’ are not military uniforms?