Travelling? Dress the part to avoid hassle and delays

Fashion guru Jenni Button on dressing for travel, "Always look like a million dollars: you're more likely to be upgraded. (Photograph: AboutFace.com.)

MY friend Sally and her sister, Dene recently travelled together from Johannesburg to Atlanta and on to Los Angeles. Dene was singled out and thoroughly searched, body and bag, in five different random airport checks during the trip. Sally was waved through every security point with an affable smile and nod.

Why?

Dene, in her early forties and a few years older than Sally, has a distinctive style of dress that her sister describes as “hill-billyish”. It could also be interpreted as rebellious, even combative. She pairs wide, green army style pants with camouflage print tops and wears her long, dark and wavy hair loose and wild. Her shoes are robust Caterpillars that look as if they could comfortably summit Kilimanjaro. Her carry bag is an enormous old soft-leather sack bulging with a miscellany of mostly, says Sally, useless items including a clean but tattered disposable nappy for her daughter (who is now nearly 14 years old) and at least three building society booklets for a bank that no longer exists.

Sally, on the other hand, dresses discreetly and neatly in stylish jeans, white t-shirt and a tidy, wrinkle-resistant black coat. She carries a fashionable, but business-like looking bag of medium size, which is carefully organised to allow easy access to travel documents and contains only the items she requires in transit.

“In addition to her rather revolutionary appearance, the fact that the contents of Dene’s bag resemble a landfill site, calls for a great deal of agitated rummaging in airports, which makes her look suspiciously nervous. Airport officials respond accordingly and, there she goes again, off for another search,” sighs Sally.

Fashion fundis agree that, while you need not to dress as if you are competing for a spot on Craig Jacob’s best-dressed list, it is important to look smart and retain a sense of personal style when travelling. It is good, they say, for your self-esteem and also to expedite your passage through security checks.

“I have been in almost identical situations (to Sally) with a fabulous ex-partner, who sounds much like Dene,” says fashion designer Jenni Button, who is the name and brain behind Philosophy. “While it is very entertaining, travelling with a wannabe terrorist is also frustrating.”

Button is a frequent international flyer and says her rule is to “always look a million dollars, because firstly, airport officials can make your life a misery otherwise, secondly, you never know who you are going to sit next to on the plane, and lastly, if there is an upgrade available, I am going to stand a much better chance of getting it than the ‘terrorist’ standing next to me”.

Her preferred travel outfit is built around comfortable trousers, “with some form of stretch – or you could be doubled over with a spastic colon and look as if you are six months pregnant when you disembark”.

She recommends pairing the trousers with a cotton or light wool top that enables your skin to breathe. This could be worn with a fine cardigan that you could peel off during the night. Men should wear a cotton t-shirt or finely knit pullover.

“I always keep a fresh t-shirt or tank top in my carry on bag for a quick change before landing,” says Button. “Also, always have a good wool coat or jacket to throw on when you get to your destination. Coats are great to hide wrinkled overnight garments.”

Accessories are helpful distracters, too.

“Wear a great silk scarf or shawl, Etro or Hermes, or announce your arrival from Africa in a leopard skin silk chiffon scarf, casually thrown around your neck. A good pair of dark sunglasses is essential too. They hide tired eyes and give you a celebrity appeal.”

If you are really brave, you might consider finishing your outfit (and/or disguising travel weary hair) with a jaunty beret or fedora.

Remember though, as you coordinate outfit and accessories, to avoid clothing, belts, buckles, buttons and jewellery – including bra with under wire support and strategically located body piercings – containing metal. If your shoes have any metal in them, you will be asked to remove them. Boots, platform footwear, and shoes with a thick sole or heel (including high-cushioned sports shoes) are likely to require additional screening. Rather select styles that neither incorporate metal in their design nor look as if they could conceal metal anywhere in them.

Other items to avoid if you want to evade random checks at airports are the anti-establishment t-shirt and clothing that is overtly sexy. While airport officials vehemently refute accusations of excessively personal pat-downs, allegations prevail.

(Originally published in The Weekender.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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