In the old days, flying on a plane meant dressing for the occasion.
Right after arranging for your plane ticket—which usually meant calling a travel agent or dealing directly with the airline, by the way—you’d set out your best suit or dress, shine your shoes, pick the lint off your hat, and get ready to enjoy the miracle of man-made flight.
Granted, most people never got the chance to climb aboard a commercial aircraft. In 1965, more than 80 percent of Americans had never been on an airplane, primarily due to the high cost of air travel. In 1974, a flight from New York to Los Angeles would cost about $1,442 in today’s dollars.
To entice passengers, airlines built up the amenities, so a cross-country flight would feel something like a stay in a country club. Naturally, passengers dressed to impress.
But through the 1980s, everything changed in the world of commercial flight.
The federal government loosened its restrictions on the aviation industry, and more airlines began to offer services. As a result, airfare prices fell dramatically—and in order to make a profit, airlines had to cut out extras like real silverware and free drinks. Legroom gradually shrank, and flight attendants began packing passengers’ bags into cramped cupboards.
As the amenities disappeared, so did the extravagant atmosphere, and passengers stopped dressing up. Board an airplane today, and you’re far more likely to see sweatpants and jeans than high heels and three-piece suits.
To a degree, we understand; if you’re going to be in cramped quarters, you want to stay comfortable. However, there are still reasons to make the extra effort, as Sophie-Claire Hoeller of Business Insider first pointed out.
For starters, there’s the practical benefit of dressing up.
You’re more likely to get those coveted seat upgrades, according to a gate agent interviewed by Airfarewatchdog.com’s George Hobica.
“On an oversold flight, we can definitely move someone up to first class, and yes, the better dressed you are, the more likely you are to nab that seat,” the agent said. “I am not going to put someone wearing flip flops up front with our best customers.”
Of course, if you’re trying for a seat upgrade, you’ll also need to take the right approach, according to SeatMaestro. You should get to the airport fairly early to maximize your chances. If you show up late, you’ll still stand a chance—just make sure to ask a real human being at the check-in counter. The self-service kiosk will never upgrade you (and it probably doesn’t care about how well you’ve dressed).
The only way to guarantee a first- or business-class ticket is to pay for it, unfortunately, but you can at least improve your chances by dressing the part.
Perhaps more importantly, dressing to the nines can make the flight more tolerable.
Passengers often complain about lackluster treatment from flight attendants, gate agents, and other officials, but they’re trying their best. In many cases, these individuals are overworked, underpaid, and responsible for the lives of hundreds of passengers. Dress well, however, and you might notice slightly better treatment; respectable dress earns respect, after all. By dressing well, you’ll immediately stand out, and the staff will appreciate your extra effort.
That might sound silly, but it’s backed by science. Research shows that people make positive assumptions about individuals based on how they dress.
“We would like to think that we’d make decisions based on rational evidence,” said Frank Bernieri, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Oregon State University. “The truth is, it’s about how well they dress…Dressing is something you can control, and people realize that.”
Dressing up also improves your mood and cognitive performance.
Looking to do some reading or get some work done on your flight? You’ll want some decent clothes.
A study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University presented evidence of a phenomenon called “enclothed cognition.” Basically, the clothes you wear affect your ability to think. Dress like you’d expect a smart, professional person to dress, and that’s exactly how you’ll act.
We don’t need hard science to notice this phenomenon. There’s something empowering and liberating about a well-chosen wardrobe, and you’ll be a much more productive person if you dress with your goals in mind.
Ultimately, there’s one person you should be trying to impress: you.
By dressing well for your flight, you’re taking control of your situation, to some small degree. You’re helping to elevate the experience for other passengers by showing them the respect of a well-pressed suit. You’re showing respect for the crew, as well, and you’re showing a sort of optimism—after all, you wouldn’t dress up for a flight unless you absolutely believed that it was worth the effort, right?
Modern commercial flights are basically glorified bus rides, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We doubt that the airlines will ever offer a country-club atmosphere to every single customer, but we can at least treat each other with more respect. That begins with a good first impression—and, perhaps, a nicely pressed suit.