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Obama in Hawaii: The end of a costume drama

The US President and his Asian counterparts could have posed in Hawaiian shirts – but instead a two-decade fancy-dress tradition has ended. David Usborne wonders why

Political historians were left yesterday to ponder the implications of the final moments of last weekend's Asia-Pacific summit in Honolulu when President Barack Obama ruled that 21 leaders attending would not have to appear for the final "family photograph" dressed for the beach. Suits and ties were preferred.

Thus overturned was a nearly two-decade-old tradition of requiring the leaders of Apec – the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation community – to don the traditional costume of the host nation for the group snapshot before heading home.

While Aloha shirts, with their short sleeves and colourful print patterns, might have been the obvious dress code, Mr Obama seemed content to play the stuffed shirt. Never mind that he is a native of the islands and having the Pacific Rim leaders show off the shirts might have provided a nice boost to tourism. A braver host might have offered the leaders other fashion options: grass skirts perhaps, or surfer-dude attire.

Even the famously dour Richard Nixon once sported an Aloha shirt when campaigning for the White House on the archipelago. (His was of lurid hibiscus design.) Yet, there the leaders were late Sunday with nary a lei – the traditional necklace of orchid flowers – between them. The man who started it all was Bill Clinton, who issued bomber jackets to each of the Pacific Rim leaders when they assembled for their annual summit in Seattle in 1993.

"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," Mr Obama told reporters. "I didn't hear a lot of complaints about breaking precedent."

It could be that Mr Obama deemed that dressing up was particularly inappropriate this year when so much of the summit's agenda had turned to the economic turmoil in the world. Big smiles and loud shirts don't match well against a background of joblessness, poverty and depression.

The President also has personal reasons to be suspicious of fancy dress. A picture of him in white turban and wrap-around white robe during a 2006 visit to Kenya became fodder for his primary opponent in the 2008 elections, Hillary Clinton, and may have cemented the perception in the minds of his foes that he is a secret Muslim. Who knows what threat a snap of him in a grass skirt might have presented to his re-election effort next year?

Hands up if you feel overdressed

Click on the image at the top of this article to read Harriet Walker's assessment of the outfits of the last 20 years