formal wear

How do you fly in a formal dress?

These days, dressing up for a flight doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get an upgrade — too many loyalty programs, the frequency of overbooking — but that’s no excuse for dressing like a college kid late for their Monday-morning class.

Unless you’re able to splurge for first-class — or you own a private jet — travel is now anything but glamorous. Airports are crowded with women sporting bed heads and doughnut pillows permanently affixed to their necks. Men in shorts and tank tops lifelessly pull carry-ons behind them, belaboured expressions on their faces. They drag limbs across the linoleum as if they’re extras from “The Walking Dead,” although these airport zombies always seem to have screaming children in tow.

The aeroplane is no longer a cocktail party with wings. It’s a hulking, hermetically sealed tube crammed tightly with seats that gather us in one location and deposit us in another. This is reflected in the way people dress.

“All the connotation that this is a glamorous way to travel is long gone,” said Janet Bednarek, a history professor at the University of Dayton. “People figure that if the airlines are not going to treat them well, they’re not going to worry about how they look. They’re not getting a meal. They’re lucky if they get cold pop and pretzels.”

She likens air travel today to boarding a bus with wings, although I’m quite sure I’ve seen people dress better on buses. Returning home from California last month, my plane was filled with sturdy types who had participated in a national CrossFit competition. Many were still wearing the same clothes they had on while competing, and others sported those terrifying Vibram toe shoes how I longed for one of those well-coiffed air hostesses of yore to swing by and offer me a stiff cocktail.

If you’d like to cast blame for the depressed state of airline fashion, look no farther than the 1970s. The decade ravaged good taste, and that included the way people dressed on aeroplanes. It started in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act into law. When deregulation occurred, airfare pricing wars commenced.

As competition grew and prices dropped, something had to give, and that something was free booze and fancy meals. Lower prices helped democratize air travel, but it effectively squashed the halcyon glow of the golden age. Flights no longer resembled a cocktail party hosted by “Mad Men” character Betty Draper Francis.

When the economy meant meals served on fine china and roomy seats that recline like club loungers, gentlemen wore suits and ladies wore heels to fly. That china left coach years ago, and those heels are exiting fast, too (it’s pretty much sandals and sneakers crowd behind the curtain these days). The truth is that the more mass-friendly flying has become, the more swiftly its once-polished culture has slipped, most noticeably with what people wear on the plane. But this is the one aspect that we, the passengers, can control. Many feel that the flight experience could be elevated, just a tad if we all wore blazers and slacks on board. While others think, at this point, you’ve earned the right to just be as comfortable as possible, with little regard for how you look in the mirror. Even Traveler editors are divided.

Look the Part

“I love dressing down as much as the next person. Come weekends, and I generally live in athleisure (yes, I hate that word too). But when I fly, I err on the side of classy for a few reasons. One? I feel better—more poised, more put together—and, as a nervous flier, every little bit of that poise and put-togetherness helps. So what if the next six hours will be spent hurtling through the air in a tin bird? I’ve got a beautiful coat on, and I smell amazing! Joking aside, the other reasons are the more obvious ones: However unfair it is, you’re generally treated better if you’re dressed better. And in an age when travellers are, more than ever, ambassadors for a country, as Editor in Chief Pilar Guzmán put it, “we have to be accountable for what our personal style says about us as individuals and as Americans out in the world.” I’m not saying we all need to be outfitted in head to toe Balenciaga, but being clean and classy—whether it’s a nice pair of jeans and a blazer, or fashionable sneakers and a blouse—goes a long way.” —Katherine LaGrave

“My rule of thumb: Don’t wear anything you would feel embarrassed to be wearing if you run into your boss or your high school crush. Rolling up to the airport in your college sweatshirt and the reindeer print flannel pyjama pants your mom got you last Christmas is not the move. Neither is wearing a full spandex workout outfit unless you’re planning on doing interval runs in the terminal or yoga in the aisle of the plane (weird!). You can be comfortable and cozy for an overnight flight and still look pulled together. My formula: black leggings, Superga sneakers, plain cotton tee, a sweater and a big cashmere scarf.” — Andrea Whittle

“I’ve learned the hard way that dressing up for a flight is important: Any time I’ve ever gone to the airport dressed in my sweats and no makeup, I’ve run into someone I know (think, work colleagues, friends of my dad’s, ex-boyfriends, and many, many more). The sense of shame was enough to convince me to dress up in real, “classy” clothing. More importantly, though, I think to go to an airport—inherently one of the busiest, most-likely-to-be-seen places in the world—should require looking presentable and not as you’ve just rolled out of bed. What’s the point of paying all that money for a flight if you’re going to look like you’ve just left the gym? For those who say, “comfort is key,” there are plenty of comfortable jeans, button-downs, simple sneakers, and warm scarves that will look better than leggings and a hoodie any day.” —Rachel Coleman

Comfortable Airport Outfits

Savvy fliers know that it takes a combination of factors to have positive travel experience. Ultimately, comfort plays a large part in making long-haul flights pleasurable. This is why to have the best travel clothes, and your outfit should not be left as a last-minute thought.

Victoria Beckham may have perfected that iconic airport look. However, the average flyer is not greeted at the airport by a legion of paparazzi and flashing lights.

For the typical traveller, punctuating a travel outfit with don’t-bother-me sunglasses or towering heels is not required.

Rather, travel key pieces that are wrinkle-resistant and take to spillage kindly are a necessity. The best travel clothes won’t slow down your airport stride or make you twitch uncomfortably in your cabin seat.

You will need to have pieces that you can easily take off or put on. These practical items will combat the different temperatures you encounter throughout your journey.

Also, remember to be prepared for a flight delay. Even though you might be able to get flight delay compensation afterwards, it is nice to have some warmth and comfy with you for the wait. If you’re unfortunate enough to suffer a flight delay, AirHelp strives to make the best out of the situation. For instance, our free flight delay compensation calculator will quickly tell you how much the airline owes you. Getting that money you deserve for your flight inconvenience is one of the best ways to turn around your unfortunate flight experience.

Staying Comfy is Key

“Four to a row; knees firmly wedged into a 29-inch seat pitch; peanuts and ginger ale, if I’m lucky. That’s what I have to look forward to, and now you expect me to show up in my Sunday best? Sure, throwing on that blazer and tie is a nice nod to the Golden Age of air travel, but I have news for you: That age is dead. Do you want to pay for my business ticket? Fine, I’ll repay the kindness by doing my best not to look like a slob. But, as long as I’m in the back of the plane, I’m not using up the one dressing-up outfit I’m bringing on vacation and wearing it in a state of contorted misery for 10 hours at 30,000 feet.” —Sebastian Modak

“It’s all about choices. I don’t support Juicy Couture sweats and flip flops onboard (or anywhere) but I do try to pull off that same level of comfort while looking respectable. These are my rules: wear only black (it makes anything look classier); avoid hoods; keep the shoe closed-toe. Black yoga pants or elastic-waisted black silk pants from Zara, a long-sleeved black sweater and a pair of slip-on Vans (plus a large cozy scarf) are my flying uniform—I do not need stiff pants adding to my middle-seat-in-economy discomfort. As far as I am concerned, the days of ‘dressing’ to fly went out the window, the minute airlines started laying out sweatsuits and PJs on the seats in Business Class. If those up front are dressed for a night on the couch while the crew pour them fine wines and whiskey, why wouldn’t I be?” —Erin Florio

“I’m all for looking put together on a flight, but you’ll never catch me in a dress and heels (or something that’ll wrinkle) if all I’m going to do is sit in a 17-inch seat for eight hours. Who’s going to see me—the flight attendant? My husband, who already knows I only wear heels to weddings and the opera? These strangers who’ll watch me, board, debark, and then never see me again? Forget it. I do have a travel uniform, and its main purpose is to keep me warm and calm; think of it as a sartorial sedative. I always, always fly in jeans—super soft Paige denim—which have enough stretch I don’t mind sleeping in them; a hooded knit sweater or sweatshirt (again, for creating a cocoon); and my favourite Rocekl scarf that doubles as a blanket. Add one wine or whiskey, and I’m as comfortable as any nervous flier can get. — Laura Dannen Redman

You may get an upgrade

These days, most flights are overbooked, but in the rare instance that they aren’t, being better dressed than all the other schlubs will give you an edge.

When founder George Hobica asked a gate agent directly whether they’d be more likely to upgrade someone who was dressed well, the answer was, “Yes, the better dressed you are, the more likely you are to nab that seat. I am not going to put someone wearing flip-flops upfront with our best customers.”

You’ll save space in your suitcase

If you’re bringing sweats and schlubby clothes that you don’t plan on wearing again on your trip, you’re wasting precious suitcase space.

Wearing heavier items like boots and a sweater is not only a space saver, but practical: You can plan other outfits around those items, and thus have more ensembles while packing fewer clothes.

You’ll feel better about yourself

Besides never knowing who you might meet on a plane, you’ll feel better about yourself once you land — ever landed in Europe wearing Crocs? You’re also taking a step toward making flying a special occasion again — and you can’t tell me that travel isn’t a cause for celebration.

You’ll make work more pleasant for the flight attendant

Planes are their workplace. No one wants to wait for someone in basketball shorts and dirty flip-flops.

New attitudes toward dressing for aeroplane comfort are a clear reflection of how we all dress more casually today than people did 40 years ago. But both Yavari and Johnson said that dressing decently is a matter of common courtesy toward fellow passengers.

“Imagine that you’re in a very small space with a lot of people you don’t know,” Yavari said. “I try to be as well put-together as possible because I think there’s a certain sense of decorum while travelling. You’re not on your sofa at home.”

And fashion designer Nili Lotan said a seven-hour flight is not an excuse to roll up to the airport looking like a tatterdemalion.

But for some travellers, it’s difficult to worry about how you look when you feel that your dignity is being assaulted. Flights have also grown in length, and passengers are so uncomfortable in their tiny seats that they’re now bickering over how far their chairs should recline. When you’re flying nonstop from Boston to Beijing, that doughnut pillow begins to look like a very appealing fashion accessory.

So far, I’ve held off on doughnut pillows, sweats, and shorts. I don’t expect that the woman sitting next to me on a flight will be wearing kitten heels and a pencil skirt, but for the love of Lindbergh, please keep those flip flops away from me.

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