I WAS TRAPPED in an airport security cattle call early one morning on my way out of Baltimore when a disturbance erupted just ahead of me in the long, serpentine line.
A man wearing dress pants and a dress shirt open at the neck was berating a woman of Middle Eastern descent who was wearing a head wrap.
"Why don't you dress like an American?" he said to her. "Because your people flew planes into our buildings, we have to stand in lines like this."
Another man just ahead of her in line and wearing jeans and a T-shirt took up her cause, saying that because this was America, she could wear what she damn well pleased. At that moment, a man who was dressed like a Southern preacher, in a straw boater, a vested suit and wearing a cross, stepped in to try to make peace.
He succeeded, and it was a good thing because we were all condemned to stand in that line for a very long time, no matter what we were wearing.
My first reaction was one of angry amazement, "Who says that?" I thought.
I couldn't believe this guy was saying this outrageous stuff out loud. And in front of an awful lot of witnesses.
But as my temper cooled and my astonishment dissipated, I started to notice what people wear when traveling on airplanes these days. And it wasn't pretty.
My friend Susan is a flight attendant and when she and her family fly, they fly for free and they usually get to sit in empty seats in first class. But there is a trade-off. The airline requires that she and her guests dress in what is best described as business attire. No jeans. No collarless shirts. No tennis shoes.
And certainly, no sleep pants.
That was the travel attire of choice for sports teams, I noticed. Team jackets, sleep pants and flip-flops. A winning combination.
I saw young people wearing T-shirts that said stuff you are not allowed to say in public. (Although none of them said, "Why don't you dress like an American?")
I saw a family flying together, and everyone was wearing the same tie-dyed T-shirt. I thought I was having a flashback.
There were halter tops and strapless tops and spaghetti-strap tops and tops that failed to cover pierced navels.
There were men wearing those sleeveless undershirts that are often called "wife-beaters," and I thought that if my husband ever appeared in public wearing one of those they'd soon change the name to "husband-beaters."
And, honest to goodness, there was a passenger wearing plaid shorts and a patterned shirt. But at least the shirt had a collar.
What ever happened to khakis and a golf shirt? I know we are in the dog days of summer, but what about a sleeveless shift and a pair of dress sandals? Does everybody have to look like they just stumbled out of a Laundromat?
It also became clear to me that we can't look to flight crews for a dress code anymore. The attendants on Southwest were wearing shorts and tennis shoes. They were crisp shorts and clean tennis shoes, but the informality was a little disconcerting among those on whom you might rely for their expertise in an emergency.
As I looked around the airport, I thought of the guy in the security line and wondered what kind of a fit he was having at his gate. And I wondered what "dress like an American" meant to him, considering the assortment of rag-pickers he was probably flying with.
For the record, I was wearing heels and hose and one of my nicest skirt and sweater sets. I looked like a newspaper ad for Talbots, and I felt completely out of place.
Until, that is, my eyes met those of a women in a shiny silk pant suit, whose purse matched her shoes.
And we smiled at each other, silent and decorous conspirators in a world overrun by slobs.