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Why are there still airline dress codes?
Posted on 14/07/2019

TransportUnited States of America

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Did you know that most airlines have a dress code? Also, you've probably broken it several times.

Last week, an American doctor boarding an American Airlines flight in Jamaica bound for Miami was asked to cover up her summer outfit before boarding. The woman was removed from the plane and forced to wrap herself in a blanket in front of her eight-year-old son before being allowed to board again, an experience she described as humiliating. In 2017, two American teenagers were similarly denied boarding due to their attire. The girls were wearing leggings when they attempted to board their United Airlines flight from Denver, Colorado to Minneapolis, Minnesota. There are myriad other examples of airlines enforcing what they believe constitutes proper dress on planes, but what exactly does that mean?

What are the rules and who has to follow them?

What are the rules and who has to follow them?
meinzahn / 123rf

One brief look at your average airport and the often unclear rules of what not to wear while flying don't seem to be generally enforced. And many social media users have pointed out that when the rules are enforced, they seem to be disproportionately applied to women and girls.

The rules are usually a bit clearer for non-revenue passengers: airline employees or friends and family members of airline employees flying standby, as the girls flying from Denver to Minneapolis were. These passengers are considered to be representing the company and held to a different standard.

However, the economy class dress code for most airlines is quite vague. It seems that much of the problem lies in this ambiguity: their lack of specificity may allow for the personal taste or implicit bias of the flight crew to fill in the gaps. American Airlines states only that passengers must "Dress appropriately; bare feet or offensive clothing aren't allowed" and United Airlines has a similar policy. British Airways doesn't list a dress code at all for any fare class. Even finding the details of the dress code for the average economy class passenger isn't easy. Most airlines don't have the guidelines readily displayed in a conspicuous place on their websites or when booking.

Airline dress codes seem to harken back to the beginnings of commercial air travel, between the 1930s and the 1970s. At the time, attire on the whole was much more formal. It was often social norms that kept passengers in kitten heels and collared shirts rather than a strict dress code. Additionally, during this golden age of commercial flying perks were more readily available to passengers, with multi-course meals, larger seats, and no distinction between economy and premium classes until the early 1950s. Flights felt more like cocktail parties rather than modes of transportation.

Cultural shifts have changed the way we see air travel and clothing. Flying is a means to an end rather than an experience, and with seats getting smaller and smaller, we now often prioritize comfort when picking out our travel clothes. These changes make the idea of regulating leggings and yoga pants seem a bit dated, and maybe it is. Doing away with a dress code entirely or creating clear guidelines about what can and can't be worn on a plane might go a long way to preventing humiliating, harmful and upsetting interactions between passengers and the flight crew.

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