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Dressed down for dressing down

Gone are the days of men in suits and women in dresses. The recent flap over Kyla Ebbert's skimpy outfit on a Southwest Airlines flight has the Well-Mannered Traveler wondering if the carriers should develop dress codes.

Last week, Kyla Ebbert appeared on TODAY to show Matt Lauer and the rest of the country the outfit she says an airline employee told her was too skimpy and revealing to wear on a July 3rd Southwest Airlines flight from San Diego to Tucson.

Ebbert, a 23-year-old student and Hooters waitress, thought the outfit was appropriate flying attire for a quick day-trip from one hot city to another. So did her mom, her lawyer and plenty of folks who have heard her side of the story and seen the television clip. But as “Today”producer Dan Fleschner wrote on the program’s blog, after Ebbert stood up to show off her outfit, she sat down and gave the audience a peek at what may have been part of the problem.

Fleschner’s blog entry says: “At first, when she appeared on the set, it didn't seem like her outfit was so inappropriate. It was clear that her skirt was pretty short, but it didn't seem worthy of getting a lecture from a customer service representative on how to dress. But when she sat down, we learned just how short that skirt was — when she flashed our national television audience. Yeah, that skirt was short.”

Was it too short? Fleschner didn’t give his opinion. But it seems that the “flashing” scene was edited for the show’s later airings.

Ebbert’s experience, and other reported incidents where passengers have been asked to cover up or remove T-shirts bearing political statements or slogans, raises questions, including:

What is the appropriate dress for flying?

Do airlines have dress codes? Should they?

Can or should an airline employee be permitted to claim “inappropriate dress” as a reason for keeping a ticketed passenger from flying?

What is appropriate dress for flying?
Suits for men. Dresses for women.

That used to be what you wore on an airplane. But that was when men wore suits and women wore dresses just about everywhere. Even, if you can believe those TV shows on Nick at Nite, to run to the grocery store and for nightly sitdown dinners with the family. These days, though, pretty much anything is worn pretty much everywhere. Even on airplanes.

On a recent nine-hour Air France flight from oh-so-fashionable Paris to Seattle, for example, the in-flight “uniform” seemed to be T-shirts and loose fitting sweat pants, shorts or blue jeans for both kids and adults. That pattern held true even in business class, where I spotted just two men in suits, a young woman wearing a bold red bra underneath a small black camisole and an older woman in a jaunty hat with a tall feather. (She either wore the hat the entire flight or put it on just for her trips to the restroom.)

The controversial short skirt and low-cut shirt that Ebbert wore on her Southwest flight looks just like the sort of outfits I’ve seen my college-aged niece and plenty of other young women wearing in public. “Yeah,” my niece dashed off in a quick e-mail between classes, “girls dress like that and even skankier around here.”

How anyone can climb in and out of a car or reach over or up for anything without showing even more than Ebbert showed on national televisionis beyond me. But if they’re comfortable wearing that — and their mothers let them go out like that — it’s none of my business. (Especially since, when I was in high school, I was one of those girls hiding small “alternate” outfits in the bushes behind the house. Sorry, mom.)

But today the topic is not what to wear to English class, but what to wear on an airplane. And while I think it might encourage everyone to behave a bit better if they did dress up just a bit for an airplane trip, my advice has more to do with health and safety than fashion.

Socks and shoes:  Wear ‘em.  I don’t care how cute your little piggy-went-to-market toes are: if you wear flip-flops or sandals without socks you’ll have to walk barefoot on the floor at the security checkpoint where thousands of other passengers in street shoes have been walking. Think of all the bacteria and fungal infections you’ll be exposed to.

Clothes that are too tight: It’s a good bet that even on a short flight you’ll end up sitting at the airport or on the airplane for a long time.  Experts advise against wearing tight jeans, tight shoes or synthetic clothes that won’t let your skin breathe or that might hinder your movement in an emergency.

Clothes that are too short:  Like Miss Ebbert on TODAY, you might give others an unintended “show” if you wear tiny shirts, short shorts or teeny-weeny skirts. But given how often people change baby diapers on tray tables and how infrequently airlines clean the tables, seat cushions and other airplane surfaces, it’s not in your best interest to put uncovered legs, arms or midriffs against any of them.Airline dress codes: Do they exist? Should they exist?
The only place most airlines address what passenger may or may not wear is buried in the Contract of Carriage.

For example, Southwest Airlines states that the carrier may refuse to transport or remove from the aircraft passengers ... “whose clothing is lewd, obscene, or patently offensive.”

American Airlines reserves the right to refuse to transport you if you ... “Are clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers ...”

But, as we know, what bothers one person is often just fine with another. In between the Austin Powers-ish “Yeah, baby” comments on Internet discussion boards about the “Ebbert episode” are thousands of comments applauding the airline for telling a scantily-clad passenger to cover up and damning the carrier for policing wardrobes instead of improving services such as on-time departures and arrivals.