There’s been a minor revolution brewing lately, in quiet corners and in hushed tones, of ideas once thought unspeakably blasphemous, denounced as heretical ravings of fanatic madmen, the likes of which plague respectable civilization like a bloodthirsty mosquito at a hemophilia convention. The idea that stylish travel clothing is not imaginary. Gasp!
For years I have complained as loudly as possible at the ludicrous notion that travel clothing must, by necessity, be obscenely hideous; that somehow its performance must inherently be intertwined with a repulsive aesthetic, with no possible compromise for those wishing to appear presentable amongst mixed company. Either you get hiking clothing, or you get fashionable clothing. You can never get both.
But this is just abject nonsense. There’s nothing about ugliness that offers a performance advantage, and, when it comes to travel, ugliness is actually a performance disadvantage.
If you have to pack twice as much clothing because half your outfits are stylish, and half of them are functional, ugliness will literally weigh you down, and hold you back. And if you are so unfortunate as to break past the maximum limit of carry-on only minimalism, you’ll be stuck paying extra to check bags, and then you’ll have to spend hours waiting for them on the other side…if they show up at all.
Which means, as I’ve said before, but can’t say often enough: When it comes to travel…beauty is actually a performance advantage.
Just take a look at these two shirts, which share exactly the same set of features:
One looks nice enough that you won’t need to pack an extra shirt for fancy occasions, while the other does not. Guess which one!
Now, as a minor aside, I don’t care about fashion. If I’m wearing anything fancier than a t-shirt, it’s because the planets have aligned in a once-in-a-thousand-year cycle to forcibly drag me out of my comfort zone and shove me into the pit of despair that is Society’s Fashion Expectations.
But for those who do care, or who want to appear presentable at the very least, then fashion matters. At least a little. And it’s also incredibly easy to make high-tech clothing look like normal clothing. You just make it that way. And who wouldn’t want to look good and feel good at the same time?
Sadly, the Berlin Wall which splits function and fashion has been so thoroughly solidified in the hearts and minds of the masses that most people can’t even imagine how it could possibly be otherwise, denouncing the mere notion of fashionable travel clothing as the ravings of a deranged lunatic, claiming they can’t possibly wear travel clothing during fancy occasions, because they “want to look good.” But this is just a complete misunderstanding of what travel clothing is in the first place.
So let’s review, shall we?
What makes travel clothing “travel clothing”
I’ve spent the last several years researching this topic, taking thoroughly detailed notes and spending many sleepless nights weighing the tactical advantages of features of all sorts, culminating in this exhaustive list of what is required for something to be considered “travel clothing.” Here it is:
- The fabric.
Yes, that’s it.
I’ll say it again: The only thing that really matters when it comes to high-tech, high-performance clothing, whether it’s for hiking, biking, climbing, traveling, or whatever else, is the fabric. Nothing more.
So…why does it have to be ugly?
Take a look at a good ol’ fashioned pair of Dockers compared to a pair of Bluffworks, and see if you’re still convinced that travel clothing has to be atrocious:
Seriously, why can’t everything just look good?
Other common travel clothing features
Of course, the fabric isn’t the only thing that’s useful, but it’s certainly the only thing that’s required. If you want travel-friendly clothing, all you need is travel-friendly fabric. Done and done.
But that’s not to say there wouldn’t be a potential added bonus from incorporating some of the other commonly seen travel clothing features. Some of them are great. But if you’re trying to pack light and prepare for ridiculous weather variations and impromptu sink laundry adventures, the fabric has absolute priority.
That said, other features commonly found in specialized clothing items can be potentially useful, depending on the circumstances:
- Zippered security pockets: As a paranoid semi-hermit who enjoys venturing forth into the chaotic vortex of the developing world, I consider zippered pockets nearly essential for travel. I say nearly essential, because you can just get a money belt and not worry about it, but I find zippered pockets to be significantly more comfortable. That said, they should be hidden. There’s very little point in a “security” pocket that’s overtly visible, announcing to all onlookers just exactly where you hide your spare cash, and looking out of place when you’re trying to socialize in fancy settings.
- Cargo pockets: Not a bad idea, and it’s certainly possible to find cargo pants with a little more subtlety than military-grade safari expedition gear, though it’s quite likely that you’d additionally want a pair of normal-looking travel pants for somewhat more formal occasions. It’s not so bad carrying a pair of each, but don’t carry too many overall.
- Zip-off legs: This will allow you to pack one less pair of shorts, but won’t be so useful for impressing the fashion-conscious. Again, carrying a pair of outdoorsy zip-off pants along with a pair of nicer pants is a pretty decent combination, particularly if they’re both able to dry quickly, so you can wash them easily and switch back and forth as needed. I’d prefer all of my gear to look nice, but it’s not a bad idea to include an outfit you don’t mind getting dirty, and in that case, it doesn’t need to look good.
- Reflective panels: This is far more common in cycling clothing than anything else, but can be found in athletic gear as well, which is why you might see backpackers wearing these. I can certainly see the appeal for bikers and nocturnal runners, but I prefer if these could remain easily hidden, and deployed on demand, which makes for a nice balance between function and fashion.
As someone who cares more about travel than outdoorsy mountain climbing or whatever, I consider hidden zippered security pockets to be the only non-fabric feature worth seeking out. Two is probably plenty for most people.
But the point of this tirade is to point out that high-tech performance does not require ugliness.
I mean seriously, can you tell which of these is a quick-drying, machine-washable, wrinkle-resistant, better-than-a-regular-blazer travel blazer?
Trick question! They both are.
Options aren’t so bad for the ladies, either. I may not know much about women’s fashion, but I’m pretty sure only one of these qualifies as a potential out-on-the-town jacket:
By the way, women’s rain jackets have been making particularly great strides in terms of doubling as casual coats. Take a look here for some good examples.
What stylish travel clothing should exclude
As with all sorts of things, sometimes it’s what’s left out that makes something work properly.
And to me, travel clothing must inherently exclude the following:
- Any indication that it’s travel clothing.
Anything at all. Seriously, anything.
The problem with most so-called “travel clothing” is that it announces itself to the world as travel clothing, immediately letting everyone know that you’re from out of town. I mean really, do you like to look like a backpacker at home? Probably not. So why would you want to look like a backpacker while out and about in London for the evening?
And it’s not just that it looks weird, and could attract pickpockets, and encourages you to pack twice as much; it’s that it’s completely pointless. It’s childishly easy to hide each and every indication that an article of clothing is travel clothing, while retaining 100% of the functionality. Remember, it’s the fabric that’s important.
Annoying look-at-me-and-my-travel-clothing indications include:
- Enormous logos. Do I need to tell people where I buy my clothing in order to visit the Eiffel Tower? No! And although restrained use of branding is just fine, I am of the opinion that less is more, particularly on really fancy clothing that’s appropriate for a business meeting or an opera visit.
- Visible zippers. This is especially true of “security” pockets that are effortlessly visible. How secure can they be if everyone knows exactly where they are? Hiding them from view is an objective win-win.
- Blindingly bright colors. Mountaineers generally use bright colors for visibility, but you don’t need to be fluorescent yellow for people to see you in a city. I can certainly see the reasoning for covering oneself in shiny orange while out in the wilderness, but goddammit, at least give us the option of subtle neutrals!
- Anything else that’s weird. Zip-off legs, mesh panels, whatever. If it’s not found on regular clothing, it probably shouldn’t be found on travel clothing. Or, at the very least, it shouldn’t be prominently visible. I can allow a little leeway if these features are subtle, or somehow look nice, but it’s easy to screw this up.
And just look what happens when you subtract those extras:
One has visible zippers and a reflective mountaineering logo, while the other is classy enough for a wedding. But they both use exactly the same type of fabric, meaning they’ll provide pretty much indistinguishable performance. So why not just look fantastic all the time?
Again, it’s not so bad to have an outfit or two for dusty trail adventures, and another outfit or two for fancy evening activities; if they all dry quickly and can be hung up to dry overnight, you can hand wash them on a daily basis and never run out of clothing, and still keep the grand total amount of gear to a sleek minimum. You can still pack light by bringing…gasp…only as much as you actually need.
But if you bring nothing but universally versatile (universatile?) clothing, you won’t have to worry about which outfit is suitable for which occasion, because everything will be great, all day, every day. Live the dream.
Okay, I’m sold! Where do I go for stylish travel clothing?
The originator of all this, as far as I have seen, was Nau, who started making functional, fashionable (and eco-friendly) clothing all the way back in 2005. They have a fairly extensive selection (including casual-use items made of organic cotton) but their outerwear is second to none. If you want a coat that’ll handle a mountain snowstorm as well as a trip to the opera, Nau is the first place you should look.
Other aforementioned examples include some of the newcomers in the “tailored performance” clothing category, which consists of high-end, high-tech, high-fashion outfits that work just as well for a board meeting as they do on the trail, and include the aforementioned Outlier, as well as Proof NY, Ministry of Supply, and Outerboro. These companies are relatively new (with only a limited selection) but I wanted to highlight them in particular, because each and every one of these will provide a slap to the face to anyone who says travel clothing and ugliness are somehow best friends.
Huckberry carries several of these functional/fashionable brands, and runs sales on them all the time, and is a good place to go to find a big selection all in one place.
Other, more established companies, generally with far more options (especially for ladies) include Rohan (one of the few people on the planet making travel jeans), and even some of the major outdoor players like North Face and Columbia have some decent gear, often at cheaper prices than many others, though keep in mind that the larger the company gets, and the more outdoorsy it is, the longer it’ll take to sift through all the not-particularly-attractive hiking gear (and useless cotton) they also have. I have spent many a long night digging through these inadequate options before finding something even halfway presentable. But it can be done. Soldier onward!
But we have a long way to go. Not only are these options few and far between, but most people still refuse to believe they exist. It’s going to take years…decades, even…to convince them otherwise.
And then, someday, we’ll all be impeccably dressed, with clothing that…well, it was actually described quite perfectly, by one of the naysayers, when finally introduced to this wonderful world of stylish travel clothing:
“But…that doesn’t look like travel clothing. That looks like something you could wear to a nice restaurant.”
Minor update: Wanna see some concrete examples of stylish outfits that can handle whatever you throw at them? I’ve added a list here. Those “you can’t look good if you pack light” people need a minor physics lesson.