A Fine Whine

Take a One-Way Trip From Tatty to Natty

In defense of looking nice for your flight or train ride.

A well-dressed man next to an airplane.
“I don’t always fly commercial. But when I do, I prefer to do it in style.”

Photo by HABY/Thinkstock

On evenings before I travel, it is my custom to set out the following day’s clothes on my bedroom chair. I do this in tandem with packing my suitcase, attending as much to the details of my travel costume as to the items being curated for use later in the trip. This is a useful habit for more than one reason: When I wake and must dash to some inconveniently located transit hub, I won’t need to make any snap decisions. And I can also thoughtfully incorporate the various elements of my travel-day outfit into the larger set of options I’ve brought along for the ride—these chinos will pair nicely with a different shirt, and those dressier shoes will come in handy when that friend takes me out for dinner later in the week.

However, the primary reason I make the extra effort to plan my travel outfit is because, well, no one else does. Among the cavalcade of pajama pants, tracksuits, nightgowns, painting rags, and ill-fitting sweatshirts that one encounters in the world’s terminals and stations these days, the competently dressed individual stands apart as a beacon of civilized life, an island of class amid a swamp of schlumps. By dressing myself as a decent human being who is aware that he is in public, I like to think I am performing a small act of resistance against the increasingly slobbish status quo.

Having just faced this onslaught of sartorial neglect yet again on an overseas trip, I’m pleading with you: Join me. Dress decently when you travel. Seven hours to Madrid in la clase turista is trying enough without your mangy old T-shirt adding to the sensory assault.

Now, before I’m accused of elitism, understand that I am not calling for a three-piece suit on every JetBlue hop or Megabus jaunt (though that would not have been abnormal mere decades ago), nor do I mean to dictate what you should wear within the tinted confines of your own car. I am simply suggesting that, when traveling by public means, each of us dress “nicely” or “respectably” according to our means. I certainly don’t have the funds for a dedicated travel ensemble, but I can manage to pull together an attractive trouser, a pressed shirt, close-toed shoes, and perhaps even a light sport coat or cardigan—the kind of thing I generally wear to work—with little effort or expense.

Sure, you say, but why bother dressing up (I’d say not dressing down) for a trip? Allow me to begin with a few practical considerations. As I say, it is wise to wear some of the clothes you’d like to have access to again while in transit. It saves room in your luggage, and you don’t plan on wearing that jogging suit when you’re out in the “real world” of your destination anyway, right? Why drag it along in the first place? Plus, unless you are flying in an un-air-conditioned cabin nonstop from L.A. to Sydney, you can probably wear your clothes again (perhaps with a brief dewrinkling in the shower steam) before needing to wash them.

Also, a number of coworkers and friends have observed to me that dressing decently seems to garner superior treatment from transit staff. Combine that preferential treatment with any goodwill garnered via “The Kindly Brontosaurus” maneuver, and you are liable to end up sipping cocktails just behind the cockpit with a well-heeled new friend simply by taking basic care for your appearance. And guess what? When you and your new friend arrive at your destination, you needn’t extinguish the sparkle of the conversation in order to go change into something becoming at the hotel. Simply freshen up in the airport bathroom and head right out to take a coffee or a drink, as your arrival time dictates.

If those sorts of practical and social perks don’t appeal, consider the emotional benefits of dressing well while betwixt and between—and no, I’m not (just) talking about feeling superior to the hoi polloi. As everyone knows, travel these days can be practically barbaric: Space is cramped, in-flight meals are lackluster, and premiums are charged for everything from checking bags to watching TV to munching snacks. 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. What’s more, traveling, despite its continuing degradation, should be exciting—it’s a special occasion! Just as you might buy yourself an in-flight cocktail or a frivolous magazine at the concourse newsstand to brighten the experience, you should wear flattering clothes as a small way of marking travel as a singular experience.

Alas, the general lack of respect for travel, itself, as a worthwhile human experience, seems to be the root of this lazy dressing phenomenon. Many of us act as if we’re trying to create a private, instantaneous bridge through folded space-time between our bedrooms and our hotel rooms by flying in our pajamas or busing behind oversized sunglasses; the bad news is, barring a sudden forward leap in technology, wormhole creation is impossible.

What is possible, though, is embracing travel as a process, one that offers its own pleasures as well as trials. And foremost among the former is an opportunity to share public space. In fact, traveling—especially air travel—may be the occasion when many of us are most in public, most engaged in negotiating the commons. Americans are, of course, fond of their personal space, but public travel requires that we recognize that airplanes, trains, and buses are not extensions of our living rooms. Just because we may be anonymous does not mean we are invisible.

When we dress well for travel, we are not only making ourselves look good; we’re also signaling that we are invested in making this shared experience pleasant for everyone around us. Think of it as a kind of sartorial social contract: Honor it and your minor efforts make transit a more pleasing activity; break it, and reveal your misanthropic narcissism to, quite literally, the world. What else to call putting one’s own base comforts above the comfort of all?