Some fifty years after the golden age of flying, when travelers wore their Sunday best to fly PanAm and flight attendants’ uniforms were designed by the likes of Christian Dior, the idea of “dressing up” for the airport has broken down to “wearing a pair of pants without an elastic waistband.”
Are there perks to be reaped for intrepid passengers who dare to wear skinny jeans on their their red eye? An upgrade to first class, perhaps? Free WiFi? An extra shot of espresso?
Do flight attendants take a break from passing out pretzels or their choreographed ushering to notice that you graced their plane in the new H&M collaboration?
According to the trade group Airlines for America, an estimated 30.6 million people will fly home for Thanksgiving—but it's unlikely that maximum glamor will be seen at crowded departure gates.
And that's probably sensible. According to official, PR-approved responses from a few major airlines, no. “Our process for upgrades is based on a number of factor such as elite status, type of upgrade used, and load factors,” a rep for American wrote in an email statement to The Daily Beast. “But it does not include how one is dressed at the gate.”
Another bounced back, “JetBlue does not offer complimentary upgrades, whether or not the customer is dressed up.”
United and Delta also declined to comment, but sent back their upgrade policies, which, of course, do not include clauses that promise priority seating to those in business casual.
That won’t stop some passengers from trying, according to Angela, an American Airlines representative who works out of New Hampshire’s Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.
“Men will definitely try to be more charming in order to get upgraded, especially to female agents,” Angela, who declined to give her last name, explained. “Not flirting, just extra charming and being more talkative.”
Unfortunately, unless you're living out a romcom meet-cute, the tactic rarely works. “Our system doesn’t allow for us to give upgrades based on charm, but if it did, I would,” the agent said.
So even if you look polished and “yes sir” with aplomb, you may still have to board with the plebes. But once you’re on the plane? According to airline employees, dressing up might score you brownie points, but not without a side serving of good manners.
“I try my best to treat everyone with fairness and respect, but if I love your outfit, I will definitely say it,” Ivette Rivas, a flight attendant of 11 years, told The Daily Beast. “If you’re nice to me, I might compensate a drink or two.”
Free booze aside, wearing more than just an old college roommate’s hoodie might be the key to unlocking some in-flight humanity to pair with your complimentary movie.
“We definitely appreciate people who take the time to make themselves look presentable,” Gretchen Petrus, who has worked for Delta for 20 years, explained. “So our exchanges [with those passengers] might be a little more personable.”
What does personable look like? As one United flight attendant who asked not to be named frankly put it, “You don’t have to put on a tuxedo or high heels, but just don’t wear flip flops and PJs, and then take your shoes off. If you do, then don’t wonder why [the flight staff] doesn’t respect you, or why they come up and [bluntly] ask, ‘Hey, what do you want?’”
Some flight attendants can spot a newbie from what they're wearing. As Kris, an American Airlines flight attendant who asked not to be identified by her last name, said, “When I see people in pajamas or raggedy clothes, I assume that they don't fly much, so they'll be needy. Soon to follow are questions like, 'What are we flying over?,' 'How much time is left in flight?,' and call bells going off every couple of minutes.”
The casualization of travel clothes has been a steady occurrence for the past forty or so years, Emma McClendon, associate curator of costume for The Museum at FIT in New York City, explained.
“When airplanes first became more viable as a regular means to travel in the late '50s and early '60s, it was promoted by the airlines as a luxury,” McClendon said. Just as passengers wore their best furs and Sunday finest on steamships a generation earlier, the friendly skies were soon graced with travelers following a posh dress code.
McClendon pointed to the emergence of jeans, and casual Fridays, as the beginning of airport slovenliness. “There used to be dress codes established for every space that you entered, and certain types of clothes were appropriate or inappropriate for those spaces. That has broken down,” she explained.
Paparazzi culture of the early 2000s further eroded the notion that airports had a dress code. “There was a real fixation on less traditionally formal attire being fashionable, whether it was denim, Juicy Couture tracksuits, or trucker hats, or bedazzled t-shirts,” McClendon said. “It was a time when there was a breaking down of the ceremony of airports and flying.”
Though airport had lost their splendor before 9/11, the terror attacks further coded airports as a place synonymous with violence—or at least long, arduous security lines passengers did not want to wait for in pantyhose and block heels.
Airports have lost a considerable amount of grandeur. Even in airline ads, first class is marketed as a comfortable experience, but not necessarily a luxurious one. “It's more about the luxury of comfort, and less not about the experience of a luxury occasion that you would have had in the past,” McClendon said.
So as coziness becomes a commodity, dressing up becomes the exception—even for flight attendants themselves. “When I’m traveling for fun I normally wear Lululemon leggings and a cute jean jacket, because I like to be comfy and blend in,” Kris, the American stewardess, admitted.
Petrus, the Delta employee, noted how the dress codes for flight attendants have changed over time, too. “It has become really relaxed,” she explained.
“It used to be no shorts, no t-shirts, but that has practically gone all to the wayside,” Petrus went on. “I don’t know if that’s a reflection of how the general public dresses, and they want us to blend in more, or if they think if no one else is dressing up they shouldn’t require their employees to do so, either.”