Dressing for Happier Trails
Hooman Majd on what to wear while getting there
Air travel can be shockingly dispiriting these days. It’s not just the security indignities, the sorry service and the overcrowded airports, it’s also the assault on the senses that comes from the passengers.
I often wonder, while standing in the check-in line or sitting at the gate, whether my traveling companions would dare to show up at work, or a party, or even their mothers’ houses wearing what they must think is appropriate for journeying halfway around the world—garments designed for the gym, the beach, even the bedroom.
I understand the need for comfort, especially on long journeys in what was once tourist class but is now optimistically called “economy,” and I understand that our culture has moved beyond casual Fridays to casual everything, but shouldn’t there be a way to combine comfort and style? Looking good is practical. It makes sense to avoid offending fellow travelers and, more importantly, grumpy immigration and customs officers in lands unaccustomed to American laissez-faire attitudes, or the flight attendants who are better dressed than the customers they serve, or the check-in agents in suit and tie, who determine whether the two extra kilos in your luggage can slide or need to be paid for at exorbitant rates.
The main thing is that you’re not flying; the plane is. There is no exercise involved whatsoever. Thus gym clothes and footwear are inappropriate. The crew doesn’t wear them, and they’re working. Sweatpants—even if they’re made of one hundred percent cashmere—are made to sweat in. Athletic shoes may be comfortable and offer support, and they’re ideal for running, but the armed air marshal frowns on running on board. Sneakers are difficult to remove and put back on, can be smelly if they come off once you’ve settled in, and are rarely the least bit attractive. Plain leather slip-on shoes come off with ease at security and will withstand the mile or so of walking you might endure at larger international airports. Remember, the airport is one of the few places strangers will actually see your socks, so a nice pair without holes, preferably in a bold color scheme and not the standard white too many Americans favor, will add a touch of style.
Unless you’re traveling on the New York–Washington shuttle, you needn’t wear a suit and tie on a plane to be appropriately dressed. Jeans—the uniform of choice for most Americans—will do fine, if they’re not ripped to threads or have zippers (security alarm!) running all over as decoration. Jeans pair well with a blazer or a sport coat. Unconstructed jackets work best. I usually travel in an old and comfortably worn jacket, and I have even endured the middle seat in economy on a fourteen-hour flight from the Middle East wearing one, happy to have pockets to fish around in (reading glasses, pen, pills, passport) and warmth enough to protect me from the sudden blasts of air-conditioning that I imagine are initiated automatically when a sensor detects the pilot falling asleep. I avoid safari jackets—though I like them—as I’ve found these may get one mistaken for a war journalist, which to some foreign officials means spy. I also wear a pocket square, not necessarily for style, although it does complete the look, but for covering my nose and mouth when a seatmate begins to sneeze uncontrollably or to mop up drops of Jack Daniel’s that my neighbor spilled on me.
If jeans aren’t your thing, khakis work, although I prefer wool pants—heavier in winter, tropical weight in the summer. Wool may wrinkle, but the wrinkles come out with a steamer or simply hanging them in the bathroom while one showers, and nothing looks or feels better. Also, khakis with a navy blazer might make you look like grandpa, not George Clooney in Up in the Air, although they can look terrific with tweed. Avoiding the grandpa look, even if you are a grandpa, isn’t difficult if you pick the right shoes, shirt, slim pants and jacket and avoid the fanny pack and fisherman’s vest.
Finally, one’s carry-on is as important as one’s clothes. Too many people are wheeling huge bags that would have gone below in earlier years. Most airlines do charge for checked bags, but if you’re schlepping that much, can’t you spring for twenty bucks to relieve yourself, and your fellow passengers, from the perils of that wheeled horror? You’re not only bashing people, as you try to squeeze it into an overhead bin, but you’re also looking goofy. Consider the civilized duffel, a leather or canvas one that can fit a briefcase inside (which holds a laptop, iPad or whatever electronics one needs) along with a sweater (single-ply cashmere), a dopp kit and a change of underwear in case your checked luggage goes astray, along with magazines, books, snacks and duty-free items. Yes, if the carry-on bears unnecessary stuff, it will be taxing to lug it through airports. But doesn’t carrying a bag, rather than wheeling it, separate us from the wheel-inventing caveman? BG
Hooman Majd is a writer and journalist based in New York but frequently spotted on long international flights, fast trains and his Vespa. He recently returned from several months living in Tehran, where he was born. his latest book is The Ayatollahs’ Democracy. Learn more about Hooman at HoomanMajd.com.