Joan Jett and The Runaways at Heathrow Airport in 1976. Photography John Rodgers / Getty Images.

why celebrity airport style is a fascinating sign of the times

Joan Jett once rode a Heathrow baggage cart in platform boots. In 2016, actresses shuffle through LAX in sweatpants. What changed?

by Maggie Lange
23 December 2016, 4:20pm

Joan Jett and The Runaways at Heathrow Airport in 1976. Photography John Rodgers / Getty Images.

There was a time when both air travel and celebrities were glamorous and elite, rare and inaccessible to most. They were both for gazing up at. In their early days, commercial airlines would land and elegant women would emerge in full skirts that didn't wrinkle because the seats were wider. Airplanes even had rolling staircases to enable a proper grand entrance. And paparazzi were allowed on the tarmac to capture the whole thing. Rita Hayworth could saunter down the asphalt runway at Heathrow in front of a Pan American plane, in a three-string pearl necklace, carrying her sunglasses in one hand and a wrapped parcel in the other. That was 1956. I'm confident that 60 years later, the TSA would have destroyed that package in its bureaucratic paranoia, and Rita Hayworth would keep her sunglasses on even after she got inside the terminal.

From a distance - like 30,000 feet - the glamour of celebrity and the glamour of air travel shared a swift ascent to cruising altitude, and have been on a slow and steady descent into comfortable nonchalance ever since the 70s. During the rise of commercial air travel in the 50s, the streamlined technological mastery of aircrafts was celebrated with tailored garments and a matching suitcase set. Now, it's been around for a while and bothered us with uncomfortable seating, delays, long lines, lost baggage, and dehumanizing scrutiny from security agents. We're jet-lagged by the whole ordeal. We - and our celebrity representatives - have reacted with the comfortable fleece of sweatpants.

"Air travel reminds us who we are. It's the means by which we recognize ourselves as modern. The process removes us from the world and sets us apart from each other," Don DeLillo writes in his seventh novel, The Names, "This vast terminal has been erected to examine souls." I don't know about all that, but in the contained spaces of airport terminals and airplane rows, we all get very interested in interpreting the people we see.

In photographs of yore, celebrities seemed genuinely excited about both air travel and simply being a celebrity. This is pre-color photography. They greeted the slush of paparazzi with enormous waves and pristine white gloves. Everyone was dressed up and enjoying themselves. Sophia Loren perched on top of a TWA counter in a leopard fur hat, smoking a cigarette. So many of them boldly wore white - which seems unthinkably polished; spilling is almost inevitable in the presence of both turbulence and Bloody Mary mix. Nonetheless, Audrey Hepburn, Faye Dunaway, Jackie Kennedy, Mick Jagger, Farrah Fawcett, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Catherine Deneuve, Ursula Andress, and Julie Christie all showed themselves off as pure angels, impervious to the stains and strains of bustling that the rest of us encounter. Faking it or not, they all look happy. Martha Reeves beamed in a sweet white coat, posing calmly. Enough cannot be said of those tiny staircases from airplane door portals. It allowed celebrities their little stage. They all love a stage. It was all very literal with "I have arrived!"

Rock stars descended next, bringing about the rambunctious adolescence of airplane travel. The best example is seen in approximately 3% of freshman dorms: a poster of Led Zeppelin posing cockily in front of an airplane, as if they have won something. Their attitudes were very "I'm on top of the world, I'm flying high above it all, I'm a god." Everyone seemed to be having fun then. Joan Jett was photographed riding on a baggage cart. Nancy Sinatra, wearing fantastic boots and a silly hat, was caught sitting atop a ziggurat of suitcases. The Rolling Stones playing on the tarmac like frisky teens. Their fashion influence in the airport style realm has persisted - thin cotton tees, tight jeans, leather jackets. But their permissive fun has not made it to this era. No playing on the baggage carousel for us. These were the last hurrahs. In the 1970s, airlines were deregulated and everything became petty. Seats were shrunk from 18 inches to a cramped 16. Jefferson Airplane changed their name to Jefferson Starship, because they couldn't abide by the association anymore.

Air travel has existed relatively accessibly for decades - with increased hassles and baggage charges that have turned us into stingy bag ladies, heaving oversized carry-ons. It's a drag. Paparazzi are banned from tarmac now and their photographs are of celebrities on the weird mottled floor of LAX by baggage claim. It's all very banal. Big, arm-extended waves from the top of airplane staircases have been replaced with a slouch. The fun has been taken out of it, so the reaction is to be as comfortable as possible. It's the same exhaustion-with-everything that has birthed athleisure. Enter the era of the black legging, the dirty-hair-covering beanie, the comfortable shirt. Our air-travel style icons are casual rogues, like Kristen Stewart or Cara Delevingne, in well-fitting joggers and loose t-shirts. Airport style surveys are a parade of tight black jeans, forgiving jackets. It's way more "I'm just passing through, don't mind me."

Of course, some celebrities are still doing it up, taking full advantage of their teams and assistants and private planes. Victoria Beckham is always dressed in graceful long-lines, often in a bright yellow. Some models are staunchly put-together, like Karlie Kloss in a long tight skirt, wearing her coat like a cape while crossing in front of ground transportation. Lady Gaga's airport costumes merit their own attention, but that is her way. It's just incongruous with the time to put effort into the airport costume. In the very first Gossip Girl book, in the mythology of Serena van der Woodsen, Cecily von Ziegesar writes that Serena leaves a train carrying absolutely nothing. It's the mark of absolute goddess perfection not to travel with any baggage. Glamour and schlepping are not compatible. Blake Lively, who went on to play Serena, once wore a belted white trench coat (just like Ursula Andress's) after landing and didn't even have a purse. Taylor Swift, of course, is always not carrying anything in an airport.

Airplanes today are often seen as drab, cramped, stress-and-hassle-inducing. But they are also incredibly honed spaceships, with ample bellies to carry us all. In the Hayao Miyazaki movies The Wind Rises, a small child is instructed, "Airplanes are not tools for war. They are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams. Engineers turn dreams into reality." It is nice to think of movie stars like this too. There might be star-making public relations agents behind them. They might make a lot of money. They might be embroiled in belligerent gossip. But they are also beautiful dreams moving through space with us, sometimes just a few rows ahead of us, all the way on a delayed flight to California.


Text Maggie Lange
Photography John Rodgers / Getty Images

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