I rarely use this column as a soapbox, but one particular element of traditional travel has been getting under my skin lately. So I hope you’ll indulge me for a few minutes while I make my case for this idea: “Elegance” is outdated.
You may not realize how prevalent the idea of elegance is in tourism. But when you begin to notice it, you’ll discover that it’s everywhere. Many resorts, cruise lines, restaurants and other tourism companies use their atmosphere of “casual elegance” as a selling point. Many of the best international airlines — those that fly to destinations in the Pacific or the Middle East — use television commercials to brag about the elegant experience their passengers will have if they fly in first class.
Elegance isn’t a bad thing. But I question whether it is still relevant in the world of travel and tourism. When I read that I’m going to be participating in a swanky event or visiting an establishment that has a dress code of casual elegance, I feel frustrated, not excited. When you say “elegant,” I hear “stuffy.” What is so fun about that?
I realize that elegance was once part and parcel of the travel experience. I’ve heard plenty of people talk about the “good ole days” of air travel, when everyone wore their Sunday best to board a plane. Films like “Titanic” can paint enticing portraits of sea travel in the Gilded Age, when passengers dressed in black tie to attend elaborate dinner galas onboard. These romantic images seem to appeal to people. But they’re not realistic.
When we think about the good ole days of elegance in travel, we often forget that the only people who could afford to fly across the country or sail around the world were people of extraordinary financial means. Travel had to be elegant because it was also very expensive, the domain of rich people. And in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the wealthy lived a life of rigid opulence that would make most of us uncomfortable today. If you’ve ever seen an episode of “Downton Abbey” and squirmed at the thought of wearing those period clothes to dinner, you know what I’m talking about.
Today, we’re a world away from the elegant age of travel. Flying, cruising and vacationing at resorts are popular among the American middle class and working class. We use hard-earned money and scarce vacation time to take these trips. The last thing we want to do is dress up like we’re going to work.
If you think about it, the trends in travel today are moving in the opposite direction of elegance. Many travelers don’t get excited about going to fancy restaurants — instead, they’re turned on by great local gastropubs and barbecue joints. We hear over and over that people are looking for experiences that are more authentic. And authentic life is rarely elegant.
In my opinion, the tradition of elegance in travel is a holdover from a generation that is quickly aging out of the market. Baby boomers are notoriously independent, and their children are known to wear jeans to even the most formal events. Requiring travelers from either of these generations to dress up for nightly dinners is no way to attract them to travel.
After all, it’s their vacation, and they’ve paid for it. Why should they let someone else tell them what to wear?