The long overdue rise of stylish travel clothing

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:

Columbia Tamiami vs Silver Ridge Plaid
Those are the Columbia Tamiami II and the Columbia Silver Ridge Plaid.

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?

It doesn’t.

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:

Dockers vs Bluffworks
The only visible difference is that the travel pants are less wrinkly.

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?

Rohan Envoy and Outlier OG
The Rohan Envoy Jacket and Outlier OG Blazer. Mmm, pretty.

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:

Helly Hansen Vancouver Tri-Color vs REI La Selva Jacket
Okay, so obviously I picked extreme examples, but still. That’s the Helly Hansen Vancouver Tri-Color vs the REI La Selva 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:

REI Mistral vs Outlier Slim Dungarees
The REI Mistral next to the Outlier Slim Dungarees.

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.

Overlooking NY in Outlier gear
Outlier is the…ahem…outlier when it comes to combining form and function.

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.”

Exactly.

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.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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61 Comments on “The long overdue rise of stylish travel clothing”

  1. Have you tried the Outlier Merino/ Co Pivot shirt? I wish I had the kind of scratch to be able to just order one and give it a shot, but with my savings schedule that’s not feasible. It seems like it would be a perfect shirt for long-term travel.

    Something else I’ve come across are the pearl-snap style Western shirts popular in Texas and modeled embarrassingly on badly designed websites, or distributed by companies such as Sheplers. I’ve had a slightly more unassuming, basic version of one for a long time, and it’s become one of my favorite casual button-ups. I only recently realized that it’s a cotton-polyester blend, which might account for the performance of the fabric. Depending on your style, of course, these may or may not fall under the “fashionable” descriptor.

    1. I have a few cheap cotton/polyester button-up shirts that work nicely for traveling, as they dry quickly and resist wrinkles. Even just a tiny bit of polyester will help out in this regard, which is why it’s such a nuisance when companies brag about their shirts being 100% cotton.

      I haven’t tried the Merino/Co Pivot, but have been informed that it’s probably the shirt they’re most proud of.

    2. I have the Merino/Co shirt from Outlier and I have traveled a bit in it. It’s the best button up shirt I’ve ever had and now, also the only I have.

      I wore the shirt in Lima, Peru where I stayed near the ocean, in highly humid weather. Temperatures were around 18-20 °C degrees. The shirt performed well, and it was nice put it on during nights. Right now I’m in Santiago, Chile and I’ve worn the shirt often under Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoody in temperatures hovering around 10 °C degrees. The shirt performed well in both cities.

      It doesn’t wrinkle much. You can stuff it in a bag, get it out and the wrinkles somehow disappear. One flaw: the first runs of the Merino/Co Pivot shirts had weird sizing: the size M was definitely too big for me.

  2. My travel clothes are pretty much my regular clothes unless I have something super outdoorsy/adventurey planned. It’s always nice to see a well dressed travelin’ man though, I must say! ;)

    1. Like the Geishas of feudal Japan, I can stop onlookers in their tracks with just a glance. I haven’t gotten anyone to crash on a bicycle yet, though.

  3. I picked up the REI La Selva jacket last year on a trip to the States. It’s a great jacket, stylish, and I love that it actually covers your butt so you can sit down outside and not get a wet arse (seriously, why do so many rain jackets stop at the hip? What’s the point?). But it’s still a bit too bulky and heavy for my liking.

    1. Yeah, a lot of the more stylish options are thicker and heavier, and they don’t work for ultralight setups. But most people don’t bother with ultralight setups anyway, so they might as well go with something nice-looking and multi-functional. Then they’ll be getting a slightly lighter setup, by ditching single-use gear. I’ll trick them into minimalism yet. One baby step at a time. Muahahaha.

  4. Hear! Hear! If only the industry would listen to people who actually wear the clothes rather than just making or selling what they think people want to wear. Sigh!

    1. I can’t believe it’s taken this long either. I think part of the problem is that the outdoor gear industry is significantly larger than the travel gear industry, and since those are quite often the only options, people have gotten used to outdoorsy gear, so it has become acceptable to wear, even if you’re not hiking somewhere. So they kind of feed each other.

      People buy hiking gear; they wear it elsewhere, because it’s good; they get used to wearing it elsewhere, and forget that it looks weird; they buy hiking gear again, because it’s fine; hiking gear companies have no reason to change.

      But I think we’re at the point that we’re evolving. Finally.

  5. I am down with the travel pants, got those Bluffworks and Rohans – which I really like. My problem remains finding a decent travel shirt. Most of the Columbia shirts look like I am about to go flyfishing. I picked some minstrey of supply shirts, nice – but more for the office.

    I have since ordered some Rohan, Exofficio, and a few other shirts to give them a go to find something that looks nice for travel. I will let you know my thoughts when I get them…

    Unfortunately I leave next week for a 20 days in Switzerland and I haven’t received all my stuff – yet.

    Thanks for the blog – you have really helped me out.

  6. Unless I’m doing a full or multiday hike or am embarking on a trip that’s 100% active and outdoors, my travel clothing mostly looks like what I would wear at home. The main exception was when I visited Norway in late winter – I wore hiking boots with thermal soles *everywhere* but it didn’t seem to matter in the casual cafes where we had lunches in, though admittedly I didn’t test them in a proper restaurant. The only home-wear article of clothing I never pack when I travel are my jeans. I think the options for stylish travel clothing has actually gotten far better over the years – there are even some gorgeous dresses from Patagonia I have my eye on during their next sales.

    1. I think the options for women are actually better in some cases than for men, as companies know that if they don’t market fashionable clothing to women, they’ll fail, whereas companies can market zip-off cargo pants to men, and they’ll snap them up year after year. And in many cases, casual clothing works just fine, unless you’re just extremely prone to freezing or sweating (which I am), or trudging through the rain, in which case high-tech clothing helps quite a bit. It’s not necessary for spring or fall, but in the extremes, it can be quite helpful.

    2. Here, in Santiago, Chile, I go hiking in exactly the same clothing that I wear in the city. Most of it is Outlier’s stuff and it performs really well. I don’t miss “hiking clothing” that much. I’m about to start testing Forsake’s shoes on full-day hikes and in the city.

      I also agree that brands like Patagonia and Icebreaker have come far during the last few years. Icebreaker used to have a couple of choices for their shirts in solid, boring colors and now they have a huge range of different options. So it’s definitely far better, and easier these days to find good, functional and stylish travel clothing.

      1. I can’t wait for the day when I hike up a mountain in a fancy business suit that is made of high-tech fabric, and everyone will think I’m insane, but it’ll work perfectly.

        1. My wife and I spent 3 weeks hostelling in Scotland and staying with family in England and Denmark in June of 2011. The magic mystery fabric you refer to is pure wool. While it wasn’t a full business suit, one of the two pairs of pants I took was a pair of 100% wool dress pants. The other was a pair of Polo RL khakis. I had one golf shirt and one button up cotton shirt. This combo worked very well for everything from beach hiking in Jutland to going out for a fancy dinner at Pearl in London. The gray wool trousers with a golf shirt did not look at all out of place in the hostel in Edinborough but could be easily dressed up with the other shirt for a very expensive evening out. Wool pants don’t wrinkle and if they do, just wear them anyway and your body heat will cause the wrinkles to fall right out. It’s also warm in the cold, cool in the summer (really -as long as its not too thick) and breathes very well.

          Incidentally, we were limited to 5kgs (11lbs) on Air Transat for carry-on and we both managed carry-on only

          Quite enjoy your blog. Keep spreading the word that ultralight travel is really worthwhile.

          1. Thanks for reading. I’ll definitely say that certain sorts of wool are super wrinkle-resistant, but I had a pair of wool pants that did wrinkle. I was a little sad to see them go, but they didn’t fit that well anyway. And just 5 kg? That’s quite a stringent limit. But nice job making it work.

  7. You should also check out Icebreaker. Insanely expensive, but very high quality and stylish (IMO). I have an Icebreaker hoody that I wear pretty much every day.

  8. Rayon is your friend. It packs light, body warmth causes wrinkles to fall out..of the clothing..not your face. And it stays cool.

    1. I’d like to see it used more, but it’s still quite rare. Lots of people associate it with 70s disco shirts and things like that, so they refuse to use it.

  9. Just got back from a 20 day visit to Switzerland and used much of your advice.

    1 pair of Bluffworks pants
    1 pair of Fusion pants (rohan)
    1 pair of shorts (rohan)
    4 Rohan shirts
    4 pair of Uniqlo – Airisms
    4 pair of lightweight walking socks (forgot brand name)
    2 pair shoes of Keen Boston II for most of the time walking and ECCO Mens BIOM Lite 1.1 (fold flat in my carry on) – can wear without socks and is nice on hot days. I was only going to bring one pair, but the ECCO BIOM LITEs are so light and fold flat, they were good to go.
    1 fleece top
    1 pair of North Face light weight long underwear
    1 travel jacket.

    I pack all of this into a very small 20″ North Face Rolling Thunder carry-on and had loads of room to spare. I also brought a TomBihn cafe bag, (small) for my daily bag to hold my GoPro and other stuff (for geocaching and stuff).

    20 days in Switzerland, hiking, walking, trekking, geocaching, going out to fine restaurants – all out of one small carry on. Yeah – it works.

    I notice the Silver in the Rohan shirts keep them from from getting that “funk” smell. It works!

    All these clothes were washed in a sink and hung dry, much dried in under 4 hours and all dried easily over night.

    Since I had 4 shirts, I could easily mix-match them with the two pants.

    NO COTTON on this trip.

    Thanks SNARKYNOMAD – you made my travel list and getting my sh#t together much easier. I am still working on my toiletries, but I am getting down to using shave oil “America Crew” that saves space.

    THANKS MUCH!!!!

    1. I can’t wait to meet people on the road dressed exactly like me. I shall greet my disciples with enthusiasm.

      PS: I edited your comment because you forgot the “r” in the word “shirts.” Crisis averted!

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