A Brief Chronicle of Airport Style
Gone are the days of formal wear being expected when traveling. Air travel now demands a certain level of comfort. We have to ignore our typical standards of privacy to eat, sleep, and use a washroom when surrounded by hundreds of strangers. So why not take it a step further and throw on a face mask?
LAX, JFK, Heathrow. The title cards of airports are thrown around like trading cards, badges of honor for the global jet setter. If at one point dressing up for a transatlantic trip was considered uniform—suits and dresses, pantyhose mandatory—the expectations have lowered considerably. Sweatpants plus a neck pillow (styled as a necklace) are a free space on tarmac BINGO. It’s not unusual to see tracksuits, oversized tees, pajamas, and even face masks in the sky.
Whatever happened to flying in style? Gone are the days of formal wear being expected when traveling. Air travel now demands a certain level of comfort. We have to ignore our typical standards of privacy to eat, sleep, and use a washroom when surrounded by hundreds of strangers. So why not take it a step further and throw on a face mask?
Photos are taken en route and uploaded to social media as part of a new, digital, passport. It’s not enough to have stamps in a passport that remains hidden from public view. A digital archive of pilgrimage is now necessary. It doesn’t matter where you’re going, an airport photo (uploaded to Instagram) elicits an air of mystery. When still in the airport, there’s the possibility that you could be going anywhere in the world. The unknowing is what makes airport Instagrams so enticing.
Snaps are taken before the pre-takeoff announcements, at the gates, and—if flying first-class or private—in the cabin, and uploaded to social media. It’s become such a status symbolizer to fly that studios exist where you get photos taken with the backdrop of a (fake and grounded) private jet. I get it. Travelling is exciting (and if your intention is to project an aura of wealth to your followers, it doesn’t hurt that it’s not cheap). Traveling interrupts the day to day monotony of your life and introduces a new topic of conversation at the workplace. People are bound to comment: have fun! And safe travels! Bask in the glory of attention as you board your flight.
Is it possible that we’ve gotten so casual that the tides are bound to shift? Are we on the precipice of a return to dressing up for air travel? While airport photos still have a component of sweatpants or comfy clothes—a well-manicured hand hovering over a passport in a show of nationalism—there’s curation to it. We’re no longer simply dressing for maximum comfort potential, we’re dressing like we’re being seen by more than our fellow passengers.
TWA Flight Center is a prime example of the theatre engrained in the airport experience. The terminal, attached to the JFK Airport, was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1962. After years of negligence (save a cameo in Ocean’s 8 and Catch Me If You Can, the ultimate films about the potential of theatrics), the TWA has returned to the zeitgeist, housing the Louis Vuitton 2020 Resort runway show and re-opening as a hotel and bar. Now you don’t even need to fly to attain the aesthetic of doing so! If you’re willing to trek to Queens and pay an enormous amount for a cocktail, which is served within a grounded airplane, you can attain the appealing aesthetics of the airport (and the connotations that go with it). It makes sense that the Louis Vuitton Resort collection included perfect looks for the new type of aviation-style: perfectly in-between formal and casual, with a bit of edge to it.
Celebrities know the appeal of using the airport as a theater better than anyone. The swarm of paparazzi waits for them just outside the gates at LAX, creating the potential for a personal runway. I was once walking through a metal detector at LAX when I heard a faint commotion behind me, an upbeat cadence of stilettos hitting the hard sterile floor. TSA’s attention swayed from my carry-on to whoever was behind me, which, when I turned around to look, was Rihanna. I can’t remember what she was wearing, only that it far exceeded the sweatpants and t-shirt I had on. She continued to strut past me, surrounded by an entourage of security.
Google Rihanna + airport and you’ll get a variety of results that articulate the way an airport is more than a place of arrival and departures for planes, but also for fashion. An over-the-top outfit can signify “I’ve arrived!” Whereas a lowkey sweatsuit screams, “I’m getting out of this place!” A star in sweats can project to us, the audience, that they’re a regular person. Or, the flipside, wearing designer clothes to the airport can be an opportunity for celebrities to lengthen themselves from the people who travel in comfort.
An airport is inherently a subversive place, a place of limbo. Its rules are both more strict and lax than anywhere else–making it a place of extremes. There are full body scans and bans on everyday objects, creating a tense atmosphere. There’s a hyper-awareness of fellow passengers, creating a panopticon where we’re always being watched. But on the other hand, it’s acceptable to wear loungewear and socks and sandals. People lounge and nap, snack loudly. These two things are at odds with each other, creating a liminal space. There’s a reason that the 2004 film, Terminal, reads like an allegory for Waiting for Godot. In the airport, we become giddy with anticipation, with possibility. If the airport is a place of waiting, so you might as well put on a show.
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