Casual clothing of air travelers tests the patience of many readers

July 31, 2005|By Susan Reimer

IN A RECENT column, I described an airport scene in which a male passenger insulted a woman for wearing a head wrap and declared that because "her people" had flown airplanes into office towers, Americans were forced to wait in long security lines in airports.

I went on to describe how other people were dressed in the airport, suggesting that perhaps this man's indignation might also find vent against those who wore sleep pants, undershirts and other sloppy dress when traveling on airplanes.

In the newspaper business, you never know when something might hit a public nerve.

Well, sometimes you do know. When I write about politics or religion, I expect my mailbox to fill up, and I am never disappointed.

I thought this column would generate some outrage over the passenger's comments to the woman of Middle Eastern decent.

But what I got were letters from people like Charlotte Stran of Abingdon, who, like me, can't believe what the public is wearing on airplanes these days.

"I think they must have been scrubbing the floor or cutting the lawn and decided to go to the airport and fly someplace," she wrote in an e-mail.

"What happened to personal pride?"

Karen Fitze of Parkville agreed. "You just want to walk up to them and ask them if they looked at themselves in the mirror before they left the house," she wrote. "Then they wonder why they get ... treated the way they do."

Robert Edelstein of Reisterstown wrote asking, "At what point in our lives did air travel become so commonplace that it became like taking a bus?

"I say raise the prices! Let the schleppers take the bus!"

Like most of those who wrote, Edelstein remembers a time when air travel required dress-up clothes. Even on family vacations, he said, his father would wear a coat and tie on the plane, and he and his sisters were never allowed to wear jeans.

And it isn't just in airports that the public appears to be dressing down. Carolyn Dickerson, a teacher from Forest Hill, wrote to say that at a recent performance of The Lion King at Baltimore's Hippodrome theater, "I felt at times I was on the boardwalk at Ocean City, not sitting in a $70 seat in the theater."

Another reader is conducting his own private protest against diminishing dress standards. He asked that his name not be used, but you will probably recognize him: He is wearing a straw hat of the kind men wore in the 1930s and a silk hankie in his suit pocket.

Several readers wrote to say that when airline personnel offered them free business class upgrades on overbooked flights, they thought it was because of their appearance.

"I felt overdressed," wrote Ellen Mills of Baltimore, describing her arrival at the airport. But when she was asked if she wanted to sit in business class on her crowded flight and others in line were not, she thought she knew why.

"I think dressing the part was helpful," she wrote.

Donna Mennitto of Ellicott City had the same experience while traveling with her 14-year-old daughter to Europe and was grateful for the "teachable moment."

The daughter of an airline pilot who flew on her father's passes, Mennitto remembers the dress code was always Sunday best. The passengers she and her child traveled with looked "like they were either going to bed or had just come from mowing the lawn," she wrote.

Though most of those who responded to the column agreed that there has been a decline in decorum on airplanes, Jana Hussmann Meacham, a health coach from Columbia, made the point that we might all be better off if we dressed for survival instead of appearances.

"While I do not travel in shorts or halter tops, I do wear comfortable, natural clothing and tennis shoes," she wrote. "The reason is very simple. ... Natural fabric does burn, but it does not melt to the skin, and tennis shoes (unlike heels, flip-flops, clogs, etc.) are more likely to protect my feet in the event I need to run from a plane."

And finally, several readers wrote to gently chastise me. They were quite right when they observed that by criticizing people's appearance in airports, I was as guilty as the angry passenger in the security line of making judgments about people based on their clothing.

Reader Elizabeth Nuss of Baltimore wrote: "The most important theme in your article was about the damage done by our initial decision to make judgments based on first impressions and stereotypes."

And Patricia Davis of Rosedale made the same observation in a letter to me: "You say many things that need to be said -- including that a plane traveler shouldn't comment on someone's choice of dress."

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