Endless lines, confusing delays, Crocs for days

When I was flying home from Paris recently, I suddenly had the eerie feeling that something was hovering over my shoulder. When I looked towards the hallway, I saw nothing. I turned my head to the left and saw what it was. The woman in the row behind me had somehow jammed her toes into the seat gap next to my ear.

The eye must travel, as the famous Diana Vreeland epigram had it, and logically, where the eye goes, the body follows. The question one would ask fellow travelers is this: Would it really be too much to ask you to wear shoes?

Travelers, we’re constantly reminded, are returning to the skies in droves, a welcome release from the pandemic years spent peering through the prison bars of Zoom and dreaming of far-flung destinations — or anywhere that wasn’t a bedroom masquerading as an office cubicle.

However, is it possible that all the time we spent trapped in our skivvies accelerated what was already a troubling breakdown of the distinction between what constitutes the public and the private? Of course, it’s been a while since fuzzy slippers became normalized when streetwear and pajama pants became cool for the mall.

But somehow the traditional sense that embarking on a journey is both a privilege and a potentially special event disappeared. Today, the arrivals and departures halls at major airports look a little different from a changing room.

“Air travel used to be glamorous,” said Valerie Steele, the director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, referring to a supposedly more civilized era than our own, when women wore hats and gloves to fly and men sprang up in coats and tie. Now, of course, air travel has evolved into a battle for extra legroom, overhead, early boarding privileges or a packet of salty snacks.

Even before experts like Peter Kern, the CEO of Expedia Group, predicted at The Bloomberg Technology Summit in San Francisco that this summer would be “the busiest travel season on record”, had many resigned to air travel stripped of its former glory, in the sense that airlines see passengers as little more than human-shaped bundles of luggage. (Just as inflation and high gas prices have made fares for a cross-country flight feel as expensive as a six-month cruise.)

Still, while the travel experience can seem degrading — hour-long lines for check-in, security and baggage at facilities like Delta’s Terminal 4 at Kennedy International Airport, a bare-bones cave where the only place to sit is on the floor — that a good reason to to meet insult with insult and dress accordingly? As someone who was once doomed to spend a night at the Minneapolis airport, I can attest that denim is a more practical option than PJ’s when you’re bedridden behind a flight information board.

Still, practicality has its limits. Take the young woman who was recently seen rolling a thick purple suitcase through Terminal 3 at Los Angeles Airport. Although her bag tags gave every indication that she had recently arrived from elsewhere, her wardrobe suggested otherwise.

Yes, her grooming was immaculate, right down to the pearlescent French manicure with its coffin tips. What left at least one bemused onlooker, however, was her choice to take to the skies in a belted velor bathrobe and a pair of rubber shower shoes.

“There’s this need for comfort in all kinds of settings,” said Josh Peskowitz, a designer and men’s expert. “I’m not saying we should go back to ‘jacket required,’ but I’m still not ready for people in straight-up Mark Zuckerberg-style pajama pants to board a plane.”

Blame the athleisure trend and those who have imposed an unclear public, said Heather Shimokawa, a brand consultant and former vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s. It was fashion editors and stylists who first promoted this now-ubiquitous hybrid of sportswear and intimate apparel, but then unknowingly left consumers to interpret the results for themselves.

“There is a lot of room for an editorial vision of what comfort dressing actually means,” said Ms. Shimokawa said. “Casual doesn’t mean sloppy. Your comfort shouldn’t equal my gross-out.”

The problem, by no means limited to travel, arises in part when strangers wear things that force us into a visual relationship with body parts we’d rather not think about. “If you say anything, you quickly run into a very aggressively enforced form of body positivity,” Ms said. Steele said. “It will be a question of rights. It is my absolute right to wear what I want and you have no right to tell me what is appropriate.”

And yet why not? Perhaps, said Bonnie Morrison, a fashion brand consultant in New York, it’s because the social contract “has been shredded.”

Some of it is a backlash against manners and etiquette “used as tools of oppression, Mrs. Morrison added. “Yet, as the daughter of a man born under Jim Crow who saw manners as a sign of self-respect, I also look at propriety and etiquette as a way of showing respect to others, you hope they will return.”

Is it inherently disrespectful to board an overcrowded aluminum tube where you will be confined for hours wearing comfortable shorts, leggings or sweats? Obviously, many do not believe. How about open shoes or sandals or Crocs?

“I draw the line in bare feet,” said Pelayo Diaz, a fashionable Spanish digital strategist with a million Instagram followers. “Dress nicely, if not for yourself, then for the rest of us,” Mr. Diaz wrote in a direct message. “At least wear socks. After all, they’re the ones watching you.”

What is little more than a passing nuisance to most can be an occupational hazard for airborne professionals. While most airlines have dress code guidelines, these vary between carriers and are almost unenforceable during peak periods.

“I stand at the boarding door and we have people coming in barefoot,” a Delta flight attendant said last week at JFK “I’m sure they have shoes somewhere.” (The flight attendant declined to give her name, citing company policy requiring employees to seek permission to speak to reporters.)

As if to prove her point, the terminal was crammed with poorly shod travelers whose overall attire suggested they were headed for a beach day or Everest base camp. True to form, a few travelers were seen over the course of a long afternoon dressed in long pants, button-down shirts, and even blazers. Some wore formal suits and hats. Those in button-downs, as it happened, were Italian; the fit, observant Orthodox Jewish men.

“Africans dress up for travel, and Europeans,” said the flight attendant, who sometimes greets passengers in French. “They always ask, ‘How did you know?’ And I say: ‘Because you are well dressed”.

Ditching a sports jacket or a light summer shift in favor of jammies is misguided, designer Billy Reid said recently from his home in Florence, Ala. Why treat travel as a chore when you can use dress to celebrate an experience that only a small fraction of the total population is privileged to enjoy?

There is another thing to consider when deciding whether to wear glasses, Mr Reid said.

“I always remind my college-age kids that the stranger you meet on a flight might just be your future boss.”

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