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APEC has a delightfully awkward ‘family photo’ tradition. Will it happen in San Francisco?

World leaders wearing colorful traditional Vietnamese attire pose for a group photo.
APEC is known for its annual 'Family Photo,' where the leaders of every member economy don the host nation's traditional dress. | Source: Kenichi Murakami/Getty Images

Who doesn’t love an awkward family photo where everybody’s forced to wear the same thing? This Thursday, the 21 leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation will convene in San Francisco for the annual summit’s most storied tradition: a group pic.

It was conceived 30 years ago, when the U.S. hosted the summit on Blake Island in Washington State. President Bill Clinton—a youthful 46-year-old still in his first few months in office—distributed bomber jackets to his peers. The idea was to foster trust by having the leaders of the organization’s member economies hang out sans neckties, a kind of geopolitical Casual Friday from the days when none had a woman leader. 

Granted, an article of clothing named for fighter pilots might not be an auspicious symbol of global cooperation, but the jackets made high-level talks about global trade barriers look almost, well, chill. They also started a trend. Successive host nations have put world leaders in traditional or at least culturally emblematic attire, from guayabera shirts to overcoats manufactured by the venerable Australian company Driza-Bone (as in, “dry as a bone”).

The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment about any upcoming looks, so we don’t know if there will be a casting call with matching outfits this year. But if nothing else, APEC has been a 30-year sartorial odyssey.

World leaders pose for a group photo while wearing traditional Chilean clothing.
Not everyone can pull off a Chilean poncho, which APEC leaders wore in 2004. | Source: Omar Torres/Getty Images
World leaders, dressed in traditional Chinese attire, pose for a photo taken by the press.
But 2001's embroidered tang jackets remain the gold standard by which all APEC lewks may be judged. | Source: Stephen Jaffe/Getty Images

Along the way, there have been Chinese tang suits, Vietnamese áo dài robes and Chilean chamantos. Arguably, the family photo works best when it’s casual, or less uniform-like, such as 1994’s experiment with intensely patterned Indonesian batiks. The most famous image, though, from Shanghai in 2001, shows world leaders in snazzy, embroidered jackets that could have been snatched from the Beatles on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s.

World leaders are seen waving in a group photo while donning traditional Peruvian attire.
Who remembers the severity of the 2008 global financial crisis when all you see is APEC leaders wearing brown Peruvian robes? | Source: STR/Getty Images

Some were outright failures, like in 2000, when Brunei made everyone look like an Olympic gymnastics coach. Mostly, though, the family photo resembles an ill-conceived catalog shoot, with the desperation of Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes struggling to sell the oversize “urban sombrero.” This notably occurred in 2008, when Peru dressed everyone in shapeless brown ponchos so that they looked like they were attending a judicial swearing-in ceremony, or like customers in barber chairs discussing tariffs while waiting for a trim. 

The world leaders are standing together in traditional Peruvian attire with their hands raised for a portrait.
With these vicuña shawls, Peru may have overcompensated for its overly flowy judicial robes of 2008. | Source: Brendan Smalowski/Getty Images

Failing to understand the assignment again in 2016, the Peruvians threw brown vicuña shawls over one shoulder of everyone’s suit jackets—strikingly minimalist to be sure, but a little severe to convey chumminess. Same went for New Zealand in 1999, where world leaders linked arms in black yachting jackets like a phalanx of mourners jointly crashing a funeral.

Lopsided gender ratios among heads of state may not help the visual unity, but it’s the men who tend to suffer in tunics with little to no tailoring near the waistline. They look breathable, sure, but they also make use of flat front panels that don’t exactly flatter the late-middle-aged male physique.

World leaders donned traditional Malaysian attire for a group photo.
A 1998 summit in Malaysia let people show a little personality without fitting them in uniforms. | Source: Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images

The one exception to this may be Vladimir Putin, who, owing to his lengthy terms in office, shows up again and again. He may be a dictator—as well as a no-show this year—but Russia’s paramount leader is a suave guy who can pull off a Korean hanbok better than most. The same can’t be said for former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who looked like an off-brand wizard in Southeast Asian formal wear.

A group of world leaders are dressed in traditional Mexican attire for a portrait.
Guayabera shirts were the theme when Mexico hosted in 2002. | Source: Rodrigo Arangua/Getty Images

The family photo endured for more than 15 years—until 2009, when the U.S. hosted again, this time in Honolulu. President Barack Obama allegedly halted the practice over his discomfort with the vacation-vibe optics of being photographed in an aloha shirt during a pallid economic recovery, all the while dogged by a conspiracy theory over whether he’d actually been born in Hawaii. So they were given as gifts instead.

Obama couldn’t escape APEC’s photographers entirely, though. Five years later in Beijing, commentators mocked his long-sleeved eggplant-toned jacket and high-collared shirt. He didn't choose them personally, of course; China did. But people seized on an outfit that allegedly made him look less like the President of the United States and more like the President of the United Federation of Planets by way of United Colors of Benetton. 

US President George W. Bush greets Russia's President Vladimir Putin while wearing matching raincoats as they wait to take a group picture in Australia.
Founded in the late 1800s, Driza-Bone is emblematic of Australian culture, so APEC leaders wore its waterproof riding gear in 2007. | Source: Jewel Samad/Getty Images
World leaders in matching dark jackets pose arm-in-arm for a Vancouver photo.
Canada sort of watered down Bill Clinton's 1993 idea to put his fellow world leaders in matching jackets. | Source: Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

Well, San Francisco is where Star Trek’s galactic U.N. will be headquartered a few centuries from now. In the meantime, the terrestrial White House has released President Joe Biden’s schedule ahead of his visit to the Bay Area for the annual summit. It shows two family photo sessions this Thursday, one for APEC and another for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a kind of APEC side gig Biden got going last year. 

While America may not have a traditional dress—no, tricorn hats do not count—Biden is known to be a fan of aviator sunglasses. So maybe the 21 bosses of APEC’s member economies will rock the Moscone Center in some bussin’ shades.

Astrid Kane can be reached at astrid@sfstandard.com