Air travel used to be a real Event with a capital “E,” something that you would dream about and count down to. The old-time airlines like TWA boasted wide aisles, big seats, attractive stewardesses, and complete meals with real silverware for everyone (even the plebs in coach).
About a year and a half ago, a special exhibit at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam catalogued the downward spiral of airline quality, and the growing divide between first class passengers and those relegated to the back of the Airbus. It was shocking to see the evolution of plane diagrams, the increase of seats from four to six per row, the halving of leg room, and of course, the disappearance of the cushy amenities that made travel so fun disappear entirely.
Now, you’re lucky to get a bag of peanuts on a transcontinental flight. If you have some cash or a credit card handy, you can pay for food at absurd prices, on top of that three hundred-something dollar ticket you bought at a “discount” price. The flight attendants aren’t all that cute or thin anymore. And the planes are so dirty that you might be more worried about contracting some communicable disease from the walls of the lavatory than from your anonymous Mile High Club hookup.
Still, despite the disappointment, the decades have not robbed us of the best part of flying: the people watching. The five or six hours spent flying across the country are an opportunity to see what’s hot, what’s not, and what clothes really say about a person.
New York-LA flights, or those from the West to the East, offer particularly juicy opportunities to watch people trying very hard to make a great impression. A lot of them seem to be aspiring musicians, actors, or hipsters. Aside from the conservative mothers or grandmothers in traditional travel gear, breezy slacks and pastel cardigan sets, the array of costumes is rather impressive. Many are hipsters – men with super tight jeans, brightly colored sneakers, and funky hats and their female counterparts in the same skinny jeans, oversized tops, and long strategically unkempt hair. Some of them wield a musical instrument, at the very least an i-Phone.
However, the hipsters are entirely overshadowed by my personal favorites: the people who look like they’re going to some B-list nightclub. I have seen women on transatlantic flights—forget domestic ones—in slinky leopard print dresses, stiletto heels, or skin-tight, black-flared pants with low cut tops. These women tend to wear full makeup, regardless of what time the flight starts (7 am, 10 pm), or how long they’ll be on the plane (4 hours, 13 hours). Their relatives are the fashionistas in full, matching Juicy Couture velour sweatsuits – pants and hoodie, worn best without a shirt underneath to break up the stunning color and fabric. Sometimes, in attempts to fully emulate the style of their role model, they’ll also have a yippy dog in tow in a faux-Louis Vuitton duffel. Unfortunately, that trend (particularly the pink ensemble) went out of style sometime in the early 2000s, along with Britney’s virginity and belly shirts.
First-class passengers seem to have their own particular dress code. Most men wear some sort of suit, which I can’t complain about. It’s practical and sharp, and as long as we’re not dealing with Princeton ties or some other obnoxious accessory, the suit is the easiest way for a man on the go to impress his seatmate. Women tend to display jewelry that they would only wear to some sort of black tie affair. This is to indicate that they deserve to be in first class. If the diamonds are out on display, everyone knows that this was no free upgrade—those uptight bitches paid full price for that ticket (or their husbands did, more likely).
Then there are those, like me, who opt for function over form. We’re the slobs in sweat pants and oversized sweaters and leggings huddling in the corner trying to get some sleep. Every time I travel with my mom, she urges me to pick something more “sophisticated,” now that I’m an adult. Maybe I should take her advice. This morning, the woman scanning my ticket called me “young lady.” Apparently even in jeans and a headband I look like a tween. Let’s be honest, no one uses the phrase “young lady” with anyone over the age of 14. The truth is that über casual dress was entirely unacceptable for air travel until quite recently. While I may scoff, somewhat enviously, at the women and men in their trim and tailored vacation wear, their ability to reconcile comfort with sophistication is the stuff that old-fashioned air travel was made of.
Many argue that the decline in service and the unkempt appearance of passengers are self-reinforcing trends. When they’re serving drinks to fat people in Slipknot t-shirts, what incentives do flight attendants have to impress? When you’re not going to have room to stretch your legs, why wear anything more constricting than spandex? Hats off to people who resist the desire to be comfortable and still make the plane’s aisle a catwalk. We salute you. If there were enough of you, maybe I’d be eating a juicy steak and not a bag of stale peanuts in my sardine can coach class seat.