What are you wearing on the plane?, a travel story

What are you wearing on the plane? was first published in The Australian in August 2008.

Once upon a time, before mass travel made us all blasé, before rising fuel costs stole space and comfort from our aircraft and before terrorism ushered in tiresome security measures, plane travel was synonymous with elegance, glamour and sophistication. Nowadays, services such as flyonward have made air travel accessible for a much wider group of people, giving more and more people the chance to travel to other areas of the world. In fact if you really wanted to and could afford it, you could get your own private jet to travel places. That is how far flying has come.

The Tower of Big Ben
The Tower of Big Ben

The first to take flight from our street was an elegant fowl named Doreen. She was heading “home” to England. Doreen wasn’t English, so in fact, England wasn’t her home but that was what glamorous sophisticates called the place back then. The day before she left, neighbourhood aprons, slippers, hairnets and rollers gathered at her house, to bask one last time in her reflected glamour.

“What are you wearing on the plane, Doreen?” asked an eager hairnet.

“Go on, Dor, model it for us!” urged a floral apron.

Doreen didn’t need much persuasion and while she readied herself in her bedroom, aprons, hairnets, rollers and slippers closed in around the tea trolley. The kitchen seethed with whispered sour-grapes.

“Lucky thing” sighed some tartan slippers “I’d love to fly”

“New feathers would do me!” cackled a head full of rollers.

The door opened slowly. There was a collective screech as Doreen, a vision in a pale blue linen coat and pill-box hat, with immaculate white shoes, gloves and handbag stepped into the kitchen. She paused, flashed a smile, rocked from one pointy-toed, stilettoed foot to another, then, to chorus of squawks, sashayed across the lino. At the stove she turned, paused, preened, tossed her head and slowly peeled back the coat to uncover a coordinated, blue and white floral polished cotton sheath frock.

“Ta da!” she trilled, throwing her arms in the air, clouting a hairnet with the handbag and swiping an apron with the coat.

“Oh, Dor, you look gorgeous!” cooed the admiring apron “Where did you get it?”

“Marlene Modes!”

“You’ll need a girdle with that tummy, though” sniped the hair net.

“When are you having your hair set?’ inquired the rollers, scrutinising Doreen’s collapsing beehive though narrowed eyes.

“Tomorrow morning!”

“That pilot better look out, eh girls?” clucked the slippers.

Next afternoon, the whole street came out to wave Doreen off. Covetous eyes followed a quartet of nicotine-coloured bags into the boot of her dad’s Holden. There was a streamlined suitcase with piped leather edges and expandable catches, an elegant weekender, a sophisticated briefcase and a glamourous heart-shaped, quilted make-up case with a chic gold handle on top. Everyone stared in silence as the car carried Dor’s reconstructed beehive and regally waving glove away out of sight.

Whether it was the spell of Doreen’s ensemble, or the charm of her smile, she did bewitch a pilot somewhere en route. She never returned. From time to time, little red and blue edged envelopes would land in our letterboxes, addressed in Doreen’s elegant hand, with a deliciously foreign stamp in one corner and a mysterious “par avion” in the other. Then, tales of her glamorous life, at “home’, with her pilot, would speed along the street, over the teacups, from rollers to hairnet and from slippers to apron. For some years, Avion enjoyed great popularity as a name for neighbourhood newborns.

Times have changed.

Glamorous sophisticates, like Doreen, have all but disappeared from modern aircraft. The pre-flight coiffure has gone the way of the beehive, the hairnet and the roller. The hat and the glove have vanished like the girdle and the apron. Even in First and Business Class where some elegance survives, the frock/ coat ensemble has dropped out of sight. And “What are you wearing on the plane?” is pretty much an archaism.

Most 21st century travellers don’t dress to impress. They dress for convenience; wise to departure hall x-rays, metal detectors, strips and frisks, they’ve abandoned belts, buckles and stilettos for elastic waistbands and Velcro tab shoes. They dress for comfort; once bitten and now forever shy of the cramped, long-haul flight nightmare in constricting clothes, they’ve given up skirts, tights and even jeans for trackies and cargoes in soft, stretchy cloth. They dress for camouflage; survivors of meal-time turbulence spills, they’ve tossed out the whites and the pastels for black, wine reds and browns in tones of satay or stroganoff.

The odd streamlined suitcase still lands on the baggage carousel but most are a long way from Doreen’s tobacco tinted classic. More often than not, they’re reduced by security concerns to sinister shrink-wrapped hulks or by weight limits to bulging shapeless sacks. The technological age has bumped the brief-case for the computer bag and the back pack has usurped most weekenders. If any still linger, they’re speedsters on wheels, transformed for marathons through interminable terminal corridors. And in the interests of counter terrorism, the glamorous make-up case has given way to the miserable little plastic zip-lock bag.

These days the runway romance goes largely unnoticed. The cabin blind is raised only for some sensational celebrity scandal. Today we all call Australia home, yet we’re at home in England and most of the world. We all dash off emails and texts now, so the red and blue edged letter is rare. And now, since we all know that it’s just French for plane, Avion, as a name, has fallen from favour.

Copyright Patricia Moore