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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fewer socks than feet among airline passengers

By Dick Hirsch

Each and every time I take a plane to somewhere I marvel at the appearance of the passengers. I’m not talking about age, gender or ethnicity. I’m talking about garb, the clothing choices made for travel from the wardrobes of the various passengers.

Traveling by air was once regarded as a choice reserved for the upper crust, men who wore suits and ties and women who dressed as if they were going to lunch at a fancy restaurant. Destinations were less remote and ordinary folks went by train, bus or drove in the family Plymouth or Pontiac. Wealthy people took planes and dressed for the occasion. The mode of dress they chose was noticed and eventually emulated by other less affluent travelers, who adopted the techniques of the upscale, seasoned passengers. Their hope clearly was to look the part of an experienced and sophisticated airline traveler. The result was that a trip on an airliner was considered to be a classy affair.

I realize I’m showing my seniority, but I can testify that the cabins were filled with men and women who donned some of their finery for the flight. That was a long time ago, of course, and that is why when I fly I continue to examine the look of my fellow passengers in amused amazement.

Informality reigns today. People dress for a plane trip as they once would for a bus ride, not that there is anything wrong with that.

On a recent flight, I decided to scan the preflight waiting area and seek out any men wearing a tie and jacket. This was on a Thursday afternoon and I was wearing a knit shirt and a pair of khaki pants. The plane we were boarding carries about 150 passengers and the flight was nearly full. I prowled around the room, planning to discuss the dress issue with all the men wearing ties. Better hurry, I thought, because flight time was approaching and we would be boarding soon.

It turned out that I did not need to rush. Of the whole group, there was one man in a tie and jacket. The jacket was plaid, the shirt blue, the tie yellow and the slacks beige. He didn’t appear to be self-conscious, but he was well aware he was different and he was somewhat defensive. (The only other ties to be seen were being worn by the captain and first officer.)

“I’m a businessman and I’ve been away for a few days and I am heading home,” he explained. “I always dress this way. Even if I had the time I wouldn’t bother to change my clothes for the flight. Why should I?”

He claimed there are always more jackets and ties on Monday morning because there are more business travelers on those flights. That seemed like a logical contention.

That brief interview completed, I decided I had the time to look for the most informal passenger I could find. Informality is generally considered a specialty of younger persons, both men and women, and assessing and judging truly informal dress is a very subjective undertaking. First I should report there were far fewer socks than feet on board, considering all ages and genders. There were some notably short shorts as well as Bermuda shorts. Finding the most informal subject was a far more difficult task than searching for the tie wearer.

My final choice was a man of considerable maturity with gray hair and a short but unsculptured beard, wearing sandals, Bermudas and a T-shirt from which he had trimmed off the arms, the result giving the armpits plenty of visibility and fresh air. We were boarding and I didn’t bother interviewing him. It’s probably just as well.

Of course the evolution of dress of passengers is only one of the noticeable changes in commercial air travel. Once considered adventurous and later a symbol of wealth and status it became more commonplace over the generations, especially after deregulation in 1978. The saga of commercial air travel, from the passenger’s viewpoint, is told in an intriguing new book, Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience, by Daniel L. Rust, (University of Oklahoma Press, 260 pages, $45.) Complete with archival photos and reproductions of advertising literature, the book provides a colorful and entertaining history of the passenger experience.

The demographics and the clothes weren’t the only changes. There were once restaurant meals served on china. The menu on most domestic flights today features snacks; pretzels, chips and an occasional cookie, symbols of how far commercial aviation has traveled.


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