What not to wear when you fly

What you wear on a flight matters.

Whether you’re on a puddlejumper, or a long, transoceanic flight, how you dress can affect your health, comfort, and well-being. It can even help you if there’s a crash.

If you’ve been flying a while, you probably know that in-flight attire is something of lost art. No worries. Here’s my cheat sheet for the sartorially challenged:

Don’t wear tight clothing
When sitting for a prolonged period, tight fitting clothes will feel more and more uncomfortable as your flight drags on. It’s hard to move around in airplane cabins, especially in economy class, so if you’re partial to skinny jeans and tight fitting tops, pack them instead of wearing them on your flights.

Wear comfortable clothes that give you room to breathe, but don’t wear clothes that are too loose or elaborate. In an emergency evacuation of your plane, such clothing can get snagged on seats and obstacles, especially if the plane’s damaged.

If you’re an older air traveler, significantly overweight, or have other DVT risks, the American College of Chest Physicians recommends the use of properly fitted graduated compression socks. For all travelers on long flights, getting up periodically and exercising one’s legs are also recommended.

Avoid skimpy and potentially offensive attire
Some travelers seem to need to dress in clothing some would call provocative or rude, while others wear clothes with pictures, cartoons or text some would consider insulting or disparaging.

If it’s important to you to get to your destination on time, and with as little hassle as possible, don’t wear skimpy or revealing clothing, or apparel with graphics or words anyone would consider offensive. They can result in you being kicked off your flight.

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Malinda Knowles was removed from her JetBlue flight due to her baggy T-shirt and skimpy denim shorts. Lorrie Heasley was thrown off a Southwest flight for refusing to cover-up her T-shirt sporting a political statement that the airline considered offensive. US Airways removed Deshon Marman from his flight because his pants sagged too low and revealed the top of his underwear.

Whether or not you agree with the airlines, if you want to fly, use common sense when you dress before leaving for the airport.

Dress in layers for your flight
You never know what temperature the flight crew will set for your plane’s cabin. I was on a Lufthansa flight not long ago during which I stayed in a short sleeve shirt the entire flight, but recently, on American Airlines, I quickly donned a warm-up jacket for the entire flight.

Be prepared for a range of temperatures which sometimes change as flights proceed, by wearing layered clothing.

Wear darker toned clothes or prints
Light-colored clothes show every spill, stain, smear and crease. Darker clothes can camouflage them. It’s likely that after landing you’ll be wearing the clothes you flew in for at least part of the upcoming day, so if you want to look good, light-colored clothes are a poor idea, even in summer.

I also suggest always bringing a spare set of clothes in your carry-on, in case of a bad spill. About ten years ago, soon after takeoff on a transcontinental flight to Los Angeles, the passenger next to me spilled his soda in my lap. Thankfully, I was able to change into my spare pants and shirt, or I would have been a wet mess for the next five hours.

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Wear clothes with lots of pockets
In recent years, some airlines, including American and United, reduced their carry-on size limits. Despite the smaller limits, valuables, electronics, breakables, medications and other belongings still should be packed in your carry-on.

When I fly, I wear a pocketed vest, which many wear while traveling. In addition to freeing space in my carry-on, it helps me at airport security. I put my change, wallet, cellphone, headset and passport in the vest’s zippered pockets before placing it in a tray. It keeps my belongings organized and unseen, making it easier to pass through security and prevent theft.

Air travel these days is full of obstacles, but using the suggestions in this list may help make your flights easier, more pleasant and perhaps also safer.

Ned Levi

Ned Levi has traveled the world as an engineer and business executive. He is the founder of NSL Associates, a technology consulting company, and is a professional photographer specializing in travel and wildlife photography.

  • sirwired

    I can second the recommendation to wear lots of pockets. Although instead of a vest, I wear a sport jacket or blazer. (Neither cost over $100… they aren’t fancy.) If you grab the right things, you shouldn’t need to access your carry-ons until you arrive at your hotel room, unless you need laptop or tablet access.

    In mine goes everything that might ordinarily go in my pants (keys, wallet, cell phone.) This means that instead of fumbling in my pockets in security, I just put the whole jacket on the belt. I also load it with my itinerary, boarding pass, Kindle, headphones, and tissues. I can even drop in a .5 liter bottle if I don’t mind looking like a dork.

    A blazer or sport coat also has the effect of helping you look more “professional” which, rightly or wrongly, often merits you better treatment vs. looking like you are heading out on vacation.

  • MarkKelling

    Don’t wear the knee high lace up boots and then complain about having to take them off at the security checkpoint. Don’t wear 47 rings and then argue with the TSA guy that they aren’t metal, they are gold so they can’t be setting off the metal detector. Don’t carry 10 pounds of coins in your cargo pants pockets and get angry when you have to take every one of them out before going through the check. In other words, think!

  • I have a jacket with 31 pockets. It tends to get looked at a little more closely going through security, but never had an issue. I keep the phone, music player, keys, tickets, a book, candy, wallet, etc. Can even carry a tablet or small laptop in it. Weight can be an issue, but does help shrink the size of a carry-on needed.

    Dark clothes, always a good idea. I have a tendency to spill, especially in the tight, cramped spaces of the airline seat while eating something. Never fails.

    When traveling, I tend to dress as if I don’t want to be noticed. Innocuous as possible. Seems to have worked well for me.

  • Randy Culpepper

    These seem reasonable enough. I’m just glad I don’t see anything telling me to dress “up” for flights.

  • Pegtoo

    Going thru security in Fort Lauderdale about 5 years ago there was a man ahead of us with the most offensive phrase possible shave into the back of his hair. Seriously. I thought for sure he would be called out, but there he was a few seats ahead of me on my flight. Luckily the headrest covered up the lovely phrase. He didn’t look the nicest, so I was afraid to say something at that point. I’m angry to this day (I know, my fault too for not speaking up) that he got away with that. Some people’s kids (eyeroll).

  • Alex

    Many years ago (about 40) folks DID dress up when they flew on an airline. My 30 something son-in-law asked me about this “lost art” and I told him that flying used to be a luxury and you wanted to dress for the occasion. Not any more! I’m shocked at what some folks will put on their bodies to wear in front of others in a public place. It’s a shame that, like so many other things, people just don’t seem to care any longer. But, it goes hand in hand with the fact that the airlines have turned us into “herds” just piling us onto the aircraft in the cheapest way possible. The airlines don’t seem to care either. I guess this is progress?

  • Randy Culpepper

    So I’m curious….what do you consider to be inappropriate attire for travel? Tshirts? Shorts? Tank tops? Flip flops?

  • It may be irrational, but it’s human nature: dress up a little to travel, and you get better treatment.

  • Nancy Nally

    It’s no longer practically possible to fly comfortably “dressed up” in the conditions that the average traveler faces in airports and onboard a plane. Not to mention that in an emergency I would much rather be wearing pants and running shoes than heels and a dress.

  • Pegtoo

    I agree. I tell my kids it’s a matter of respect. Their torn jeans aren’t respectful attire in many situations, and they need to pay attention to that. I know it’s “in style” but the world is not the same as high school. (I’m hoping!!!)

  • ChelseaGirl

    Wear slip-on shoes, not anything with laces. Makes it way easier when you remove your shoes to go through security.

  • ChelseaGirl

    Also, if you flew business or first class, you were actually required to wear business attire on most airlines. This rule was in the ticket handout.

  • Tricia K

    Another factor to take into consideration are high heels and pantyhose. The shoes make it difficult to get off the plane quickly in an emergency, the the pantyhose can even melt on your skin in case of a fire. I always travel with some sort of lightweight sweatshirt. The most embarrassing thing I ever had to wear on a plane? My Girl Scout uniform on a trip from Kennedy to Mexico. It was fine in Mexico but the remarks at JFK were merciless. One of our leaders reminded us we were on our way to two weeks in Mexico because we were Girl Scouts. Still hated the uniform itself (it had a tie that if fastened properly choked you when you say down), but wore it with a little more pride.

  • Tom Harriman

    Ned, I had hoped you would have raised the issue of wearing clothes that won’t be burned into your skin in case of fire. Are some fabrics safer than others? Another question is footgear. I routinely wear sandals, makes security easier and lets my feet breathe (and swell) inflight. But in case of an emergency evacuation, what should I worry about? If I hit the water, I can ditch my sandals easily. If am running over hot metal and broken glass, I would imagine I would wish I had worn real shoes!

  • kenish

    Yeah, the nicest guys shave phrases into the back of their hair!!

  • kenish

    Military flying suits are all-cotton and don’t contain any polyester. In case of a crash/fire, many synthetics burn easily and stick to skin. The travel editor of our newspaper had to evacuate her plane via the slides on takeoff from Chicago. She was headed from CA to the Caribbean via Chicago and was dressed for the tropics. She had to run away from the plane through slush and mud on the ground, and it was about 20 freezing minutes before heated buses arrived. Her lesson learned was to dress for outside conditions until the plane is safely in the air.

  • BMG4ME

    I particularly like the comments about skimpy clothing. I find that really irritating, especially but not only when it’s not even pleasant to look at.

  • John McDonald

    one airline has been doing a promo wear if you turn up in a bikini, your fare is refunded (only short flights & only 1 way refund) but got them a huge amount of free publicity.

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