Slate recently made the case for dressing nicely for a plane, train or bus ride. It encouraged the tracksuit travelers of the world to put a little effort into their outfits. There’s no real excuse, either, because sweats actually aren’t the only comfortable clothes out there. There are tons of apparel and styles that work well for travel.
If you, like author J. Bryan Lowder, try to look presentable when you’re on the road, you probably exclaimed “yes!” often and enthusiastically when reading it. If you lean toward schlubby when you travel, you might have felt defensive and called out. And if you’re European, you probably tittered over the need for something like this to even be published.
I’ve been one of those classic before-and-after examples on a makeover show, so I feel qualified and moved to comment on the subject. In short: I agree wholeheartedly with the author. I think it’s worth putting a little time and effort into how you look—as you would on any normal day—when you’re in transit. It’s not because it’s all about what other people think. It’s about you and some r-e-s-p-e-c-t.
To make the case in point, I’ve included some of the strongest reasons Lowder gives for “not dressing down” when traveling, as he puts it, with my supportive two cents:
As I say, it is wise to wear some of the clothes you’d like to have access to again while in transit.
Unless you’re wearing the actual pajamas you’ve packed for your trip or are heading to a yoga retreat, you’re probably not wearing that ensemble again, so why waste space bringing it with you?
Simply freshen up in the airport bathroom and head right out to take a coffee or a drink, as your arrival time dictates.
Time is so precious with travel. After dealing with a flight delay I once went directly from the airport to the San Francisco bar where my friends were on a Friday night. I arrived one hour to closing time and the bouncer was so impressed with my initiative that he offered to guard my carry-on behind his stool at the door.
Dressing decently seems to garner superior treatment from transit staff.
No matter what people say or like to think they think, we humans are constantly making snap judgements about each other. If something as simple as swapping a sweatshirt for a cardigan can potentially, subconsciously curry me some favor with people with travel power, you bet I’m doing it.
The weary traveler has little control over these things, but he can control his own outfit—and feeling handsome amid all the inhumanities can be powerfully heartening.
Weathering news of an absurd flight delay, running maniacally through an airport, dealing with an interminable layover: In my experience, I’ve found I handle these curveballs with much more control and dignity when I look and feel like an actual person rather than a pajama-clad shadow of one. You don’t have to wear three-piece suits and pretend these are the halcyon Panam days of flying but I’m also not going to roll up to the airport with a look right off the runway.
Still, with some strategic color, style and material choices, I’ve learned it’s pretty painless to pull something together that makes me look pulled together.
In fact, I always do my hair before traveling. It might get matted but it should at least come out looking okay after a flight. I at least now have it how I want it for that first day in my destination before I wrestle with a weak hair dryer or see what effect the local water flavor has on my mane.
First things first: Layer forever and always. Layering is ingenious for a couple reasons, the principal reason being that you’re equipped to take on all the fickle temperature changes that crossing continents and altitudes will throw your way. There’s also the added benefit of being able to pack less. Just take the chunky sweater on board.
My outermost layer (or second outermost layer—have I mentioned I’m into layering?) is always a knit. My favorites ones are oversized so I can wrap myself up like a burrito on a frigid plane. Knits can be balled up and stuffed anywhere and they’ll still love you and come out wrinkle-free.
Black and neutrals
All it took was one friend lilting off her crack-of-dawn-arrival flight in a long black dress for me to decide through groggy eyes that would be my go-to travel outfit. I got a great one that I wear when I travel and regularly get compliments on. The best part? It’s from Target.
I find black to be the ultimate chameleon color. The color looks good and works in every and any setting, regardless of what the material is. It’s also forgiving in that it’s flattering, yes, but it also hides stains. Borrowing a page from the French here, I think black with neutrals always looks smart. My opinion is that black leggings can even work, as they’re thick and all butts are covered.
My personal policy is strictly stretch when it comes to pants. I find it so much more comfortable and forgiving than rigid jeans. And when I’m readjusting my contorted sleep position every 10 minutes on a flight, stretch is my best friend.
I always notice people with a nice scarf on as a touch more polished than the rest. A good one, like a pashmina one, gets you the softest blanket on the plane, too.
My belief is that a nice cardigan or blazer always looks good. Cardigans are the more comfortable option while blazers look sharp. I’m always stuffing my passport or phone in the pockets when winding through the airport, too.
Well-cut tee shirt
When in doubt, I pull on a simple cotton tee with a good fit—not necessarily fitted—and cut. In fact, I have the same shirt in three different colors. Nothing goes better with all those layers.
Easy on, easy off shoes
I always wear boots with a low, if any heel or ballet flats when I travel that I can get in and out of quickly because it’s that much easier. There’s security to think about, and then I always have them on and off during the plane ride, between curling up to sleep and going to the bathroom. If I’m wearing shoes without socks I make sure to pack a pair in my carry-on.
While flip-flops are quick on and off, they’re absolutely no help when you’re moving through an airport dragging a bag. And let’s be honest: they don’t do much to send a message of outfit effort.
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