Air travel style: from glamour to practicality in one lifetime

In Singapore Airport T1,I was admiring the confident, relaxed travellers all around me and remembering my first trips on a commercial airline, in the early 1960s. At the time, air travel seemed impossibly glamorous and we were all strongly aware that these journeys were changing the world of travel forever.

We bought special outfits or at least wore our Sunday best. (Don’t ask.) For my first trip I wore my “going away suit”: Mrs McAlpine ascended the steps to the entry dressed in a sage green two-piece suit, with a short straight skirt and a perky shaped jacket with collar and bow. Her outfit was topped off with a multicoloured raffia hat to hold her golden hair neatly in place for the long journey to Australia. Her handsome husband Grant wore a crisp navy reefer jacket with silver buttons, a polo necked sweater, and classic trousers in khaki wool gaberdine.

One turned at the top of the steps to wave farewell to the sniffling relatives left on the ground, then one disappeared into the bowels of the plane. As the plane taxied on to the runway, a uniformed official ran ahead waving a red flag to shoo stray cattle off the tarmac … just kidding. Then we were in the hands of the Air Stewardesses, the most glamorous, modern job available to ambitious young women.

Jump ahead 50 years. Comfort rules, and most travellers wear jeans, shorts, T-shirts or sweatshirts, and sneakers. Backpacks and roller cases and rolling tracks and golf-carty-things make carting luggage around a fairly simple business. One tiny device acts as portable phone, map, ticket, boarding pass, camera, wallet, newspaper, book, movie theatre, games room, insurance policy, address book — oh stop me or I’ll go on all night. Coffee comes in a cardboard cup. Airports unrecognisable.

You know what I mean. We moan and groan about new inconveniences around travel (security checks, cancelled planes, bad this, bad that, jet lag, leg room not…) — fair enough. But it’s good to remind ourselves of those long ago days, when every air trip was noisy and slow and wildly exotic, and we knew exactly how great was our privilege.

21 thoughts on “Air travel style: from glamour to practicality in one lifetime

  1. lifecameos says:

    My first flight in 1967 caught me by surprise. A group of us from my university were going to a student summer conference, travelling from Auckland to Christchurch. I was expecting to go by train and boat, and was very surprised when we were asked to pay our airfares to one person by a certain date so that we could get a group discount. It was a very strange experience, my first flight. We wore very simple casual student clothing on the flight. Then bus to our conference accommodation.

    1. That is still a surprise 50 years later! Exciting though.

  2. Dan Antion says:

    I remember when people dressed up for air travel. I’d gladly go back to larger seats and reasonable food, but it was more expensive. I guess we take the good with the bad.

    1. Yes, that’s fair enough.

  3. This is SO true!! My first visit to an airport was in 1964 to wave my cousin and his bride off on honeymoon. And yes, we all trooped out onto the tarmac to watch them, dressed in their very smart ‘going away outfits’, as they climbed up the steps into the aeroplane. Security? Unheard of!!

    1. And one day we looked more closely at the winged coach, and lo, we saw a pumpkin.

  4. I try to travel with the idea of “classy comfort.” It’s a level somewhat below wearing stilettos through an airport (How do they do that?) and considerably above shorts and flip flops, with earbuds in, completely ignoring the world. There must be a happy medium. But I’m with Dan – A little more space would be nice!

    1. I like the fact that you travel with awareness that this is not just another day. It’s special, and you mark that.

  5. Air travel certainly has changed and is thankfully much faster.

    1. That’s for sure. And just over the horizon, rocket travel?

  6. cedar51 says:

    i remember local flying home from boarding school to Whenuphai (?sp) then a few years later, Mum moaning they had to fetch me from Auck airport. I would’ve had school outing uniform on…

    And then later in my late teens flying away to other side of the world on my own (probably supervised by air company…) and having a lot of room, mainly because I was sick as a dog, the whole way – I think something like nearly 36 hrs, which had included some refuelling stops…

  7. Robyn Haynes says:

    I remember those times well Rachel. The travelling outfit was more important than what we wore once arrived. So glamorous! Even going to the airport to greet or send others off was a thrill.

  8. Glynis Jolly says:

    My first air trip was in the late 60s, flying from Denver to NYC. Yes, I did dress up for the flight and felt self-conscious during the four hours it took to get there.

    1. Oh yes, I remember that self consciousness, as if I was on display.

  9. joared says:

    Yes, dressing to the nines to fly commercially was what we did and flying was more of a privilege than it has been in many years. I had my first brief flight in a private biplane in the ‘50s; later commercially to S.A., but not much commercially in the years of luxury compared to now. Still,seems to me the starkness of commercial flying which makes it so unpleasant could allow for more pleasantness and comfort.

    Seems not too many years ago I recall driving from my home which had become L.A. to and from Los Angeles Airport (LAX) a half dozen times one week with family coming and going — waiting or going with them to the actual boarding or deplaning areas to watch planes depart or arrive. How delightful, but not a possibility now with all the security.

  10. Wendy says:

    In the sixties I remember every outing away from home was an occasion worth dressing up for, whether it was a trip to the big town for the monthly shop (Mum wore gloves and a hat) or something more glamorous. There was an expectation that a standard had to be met. And judgement was swift if you fell short in small town NZ back then.
    I had a vision of a blonde version of Jackie Kennedy turning and waving at the door as I read your description.

    1. You have put the old fashion sense in context, thanks. So no surprise if we got all dolled up for the genuinely exceptional event of air travel!

  11. Ann Coleman says:

    Good point. I remember when my friend made her kids change to nicer clothes just to take me to the airport!

    1. High society!

  12. Aunt Beulah says:

    I, too, used to dress up to fly; and I enjoyed being served a meal because I was young, and, hey, I didn’t have to cook it. Now I dress for comfort and carry on a snack, which I like, but I do miss the more spacious seats with more leg room. Also, the older I get, the less patience I have for cancellations and delays. I no longer have the time for them!

  13. Those short seats are so bad for everyone! I used to fly to Japan regularly in a certain type of plane (7##, plane spotters?) which had been designed with too many business class seats, and if I stipulated seat 17K, I got to fly business class, upstairs. Those were the days, aaaaahhhhh… As for delays, I’m the opposite: I have taught myself to enjoy waiting, to treat those hours in airports as a bonus, extra hours to fill with people-watching and walking and general self-indulgence. In Singapore this week I had a long tussle with a (free) leg & foot massage chair which was almost too exciting.