When I was a kid, people dressed for travel.
Not to sit in a car for 10 or 12 hours, mind you, but for public transportation. Trains. Ships. Planes.
In fact, the term “jet set” was first used in the 1950’s to describe those members of cafe society who could afford to travel the world. Dressing well for travel was just another hallmark of status and wealth, and ads and movie images from the era typically looked something like this:
Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina (1954)
Sophia Loren for Fendi (c. 1972)
Catherine Deneuve for Louis Vuitton (c. 2010)
But when “Casual Friday” came along in the 1990’s, dressing well for anything fell by the wayside, including dressing for travel.
Today, airports are filled with people wearing jeans, sweats, and leggings. Comfort is the name of the game, and don’t you dare criticize. If you dress up to travel like people used to “back in the day,” other passengers look at you like you’re from a different planet.
But travel personnel treat you extremely well.
Add a friendly smile and compliment, and you’ll get all sorts of unexpected perks.
That’s why I discovered by accident years ago when I flew home one time for a visit.
It was summer in the early 90’s, and that morning, I gave a presentation at work wearing a white skirt, white top, and navy blue jacket and pumps. My bags were in the trunk of my car, and I thought I’d have enough time to change before my afternoon flight. But things got hectic and that didn’t happen, so off I went to the Houston airport, dressed in white and navy.
Crazy, I know – nobody travels in white.
Or in heels.
But I wore both…and was treated like royalty.
It was the craziest thing I ever saw.
People stopped me to tell me how nice I looked. The flight attendant tried to seat me in First Class (I was traveling coach). One little girl asked for my autograph. It was thoroughly entertaining.
When my sister met me at the gate in Colorado Springs, she laughed and said, “You look so glamorous! Are you sure you didn’t come by private flight?”
“People have been asking me stuff like that all day,” I said. “Do I really look so different from everyone else?”
She nodded. “Look around. See anyone else who’s dressed like you?”
Until the return flight.
That’s when I wore a t-shirt and shorts…and promptly blended in with the crowd. No special perks, no mistaking me for first class.
It was a VERY eye-opening experience.
Since then, I’ve always made a little bit of an effort to dress better than average when flying. I haven’t worn all white again, but I have worn a skirt and heels. Invariably, I’m treated well.
That’s what I was explaining to my daughters recently when I read a “Top Ten Things Travelers Want” list, with number one being…
“But people want to be comfortable when they travel,” my 16 year old insisted.
“I don’t have a problem with comfort,” I said. “It’s equating sloppy with comfort where I take issue.”
Apparently, so do a lot of others.
If you Google, “why people don’t dress when they travel,” it returns articles about how NOT to look like an American tourist when you travel.
Here are a couple of comments from the “Why do people dress up nice to travel on planes?” thread on LetsRun.com:
“Actually people USED to dress up to get on a plane because it was exotic and reserved for the well to do. Now the airport is more like a bus station.”
“People are a mess, I hate going to the airport. Everyone is wearing pajama pants and flip flops, looks like hell, and probably hasn’t bathed. I think bus stations might be a better option.”
“I’ve been on chicken buses in Central America that had better dressed occupants than most domestic flights. It’s amazing how much Americans stick out due to the clothes and overall shabby appearance.”
But commenter “anti-tard” hit the matter on the head:
“The real reason is that dressing well usually equates to getting better service. This is equally applicable everywhere, but getting better service in an airport has a much bigger impact on your life than getting good service at a 7-11. Therefore, when flying, it makes sense to dress well.
“Think about it. You’ve all complained about sloppy people populating airports. Imagine being a customer service rep for an airline, dealing with these people all day long. Then suddenly a man comes up to you wearing a nice pair of jeans and a well-tailored blazer with a button-down shirt – nothing crazy, but he looks well put together. He’s polite when he makes his request and asks for your help. You as a rep are about 1000x more likely to go the extra mile for this guy who acts and looks classy than you are for the 10,000 slobs acting like jerks that surround him.”
Especially if you do it on a hard travel day when everyone else is bound to be short tempered.
The world “travel” comes from the French word travail (trav al), meaning “to engage in painful or laborious effort.” Traveling was so difficult for so long that the only people who bothered with it were armies, explorers, and scholars. For thousands of years, most people never ventured more than 20 miles from where they were born.
But those who did were richly rewarded. Not only in experience by seeing how others lived, but by engaging in trade with other countries. The Silk Road Trade route was the main source of income and wealth in the world for thousands of years, and it’s what allowed Europe to emerge from the Dark Ages when soldiers brought back exotic goods from the Holy Land after fighting in the Crusades. Because when people saw what was available elsewhere, commerce quickly followed.
Silk Road Trade Route, c. 1100
Yet today, most people don’t give a second thought to the technology that allows them to circumnavigate the globe. Whereas the original Silk Road was 4,600 miles and took over a year to travel, today that same route would take about a week by car or a ten hours by plane.
So why the history lesson?
Because sometimes, you just have to give people their “props” – or proper recognition.
Marco Polo, Columbus, Vespucci, Dias – total stud muffins. Fearless. Inspired.
The conditions under which they traveled are mind-boggling. Camels. Cramped ships. Hurricanes. Bandits. For months or even years on end. They had to make instant, far-reaching decisions, often with “do or die” consequences.
Sir Joseph Banks was the lead naturalist on Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific (1768-1771). After spending more than two years studying, cataloging, and collecting plants from Brazil, Argentina, Tahiti, and New Zealand, their ship, the Endeavour, hit the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. Sinking fast, Cook ordered the crew to “lighten the load” by casting off all non-essential items – including most of Sir Joseph’s plant specimens. He stood there, mouth agape, watching two years’ worth of work being tossed overboard. Luckily, being a man of vision, he’d brought along artists and a secretary to help record his findings. Which was fortunate – because he never made the trip again. He’s credited with introducing bougainvillea, eucalyptus, acacia, and hundreds of other plants to the Western world.
Captain James Cook’s First Voyage, 1768-1771
Then there’s Isabella Bird.
An inquisitive woman of frail health, Isabella was encouraged by doctors to engage in sport and travel as a way to improve her health. She made her first trip to the United States in 1854 at age 23, and published a book about it two years later called, “An Englishwoman in America” (1856). From then on, she was hooked on traveling, and continued to write and explore the world by train, ship, and horseback. Later books include “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” (1879), “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” (1880), “Among the Tibetans” (1894), and “The Yangtze Valley and Beyond” (1899). The first female travel writer, Isabella Bird’s tales served as a source of inspiration for thousands of less adventurous women, and she’s still well-regarded in the travel community today.
Then, of course, there was Amelia Earhart.
Born into a middle class family and raised as a tomboy, Amelia had a fascination with aviation and male-dominated fields in general. After her first 10 minute flight in 1920 at age 23, Amelia became determined to be a pilot and worked at a variety of jobs including nurse, photographer, truck driver, and stenographer, in order to pay for flying lessons. She had to take the bus to the end of the line and walk four miles to the airfield for each lesson, but she didn’t care; she was determined. She broke the first female flying record in 1922 by flying at an altitude of 14,000 feet, and in 1923, became the 16th woman to be issued a pilot’s license. She became a celebrity with her first transatlantic flight in 1928, and legend with her disappearance in 1937. Like Isabella Bird, she was an inspiration to women the world over.
Amelia Earhart in 1931
So when I think about all these intrepid explorers who bravely faced challenges most can’t even imagine in order to advance civilization and create the modern travel industry, it seems kind of disrespectful to NOT dress up when partaking of the fruits of their labors.
Yet that doesn’t even register for most people. Cold chicken and warm champagne in First Class qualify as “bad travel”; being chased by Mongols or getting lost at sea isn’t even a blip on the radar.
So if you want to get more respect – and by default, better service – when you travel, just dress better than average, like people used to “back in the day.” Not only will you enjoy the attention and perks from those in the travel industry, you’ll be paying respect to all those fearless travelers who went before you. Even if you’re the only one who acknowledges it.
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