A phrase like "the golden age of travel" hardly conjures a cramped commuter flight on an MD-80. I know when I get the wanderlust, my imagination tends to summon methods of conveyance that have long since gone the way of the dodo. I begin to dream of stately transatlantic steamers positively packed with handsome strangers (Scotty Fitzgerald stuff) or a Model T motor cruise along the Columbia Gorge Highway (that's what the formidable Sam Hill built it for, y'know). Better yet a Pullman car on the Empire Builder chugging to Chicago on a cool spring night (ever read Mary McCarthy's "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt?").

Luxury, leisure and love affairs weren't the only benefits of such romantic transit. Think of all the fashion opportunities now vanished--the serge traveling suit, the duster, kid gloves and goggles, the matched calfskin luggage sprayed with decals from exotic ports of call. Certainly, travelers used to look better. Now we wear sneakers to prevent discomfort when our feet swell in flight.


Yet, somehow air travel has a half-baked glamour all its own, as evidenced by Keith Lovegrove's remarkable book Airline: Identity, Design and Culture. Pound for pound, this coffee-table honey is nothing less than a paean to flotation cushions and the Mile-High Club. Jammed with fantastic photos of plane interiors, airline flatware and stewardess couture of yore (who knew that '60s carrier Braniff had Emilio Pucci stewardess dresses and Alexander Calder designs on plane exteriors?), it makes you want to return your tray table to its full upright and locked position.

So what made 20th century airlines so aesthetically ambitious? By the time commercial air travel gathered speed in the late 1950s, carriers competing for customers had to be inventive to get people on their planes. Rather than, say, improving the cuisine or the on-time record, airlines used design (and the sweet young things wearing the stylish designs) to differentiate themselves. Looking forward from 1940, the evolution of cabin crew clothing reflects trends on the ground, as well as shifting passenger attitudes toward flight. Early uniforms were stern and militaristic ("We are efficient! We will not crash!"). Fast forward to Pucci's psychedelic designs, which winked at '60s drug culture, and the Southwest Airlines hot pants and go-go boots of the early '70s ("don't sweat it, baby, enjoy the ride"). Even nomenclature--"air hostess," "stewardess," "flight attendant"--changes in direct ratio to hem length.

But that's all academic. We can't find much to inspire us in current cabin crew styles, which tend to reflect the corporate conservatism overtaking all aspects of the industry (and--duh!--the sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits of the '80s might have had something to do with the disappearance of hot pants). But for leisure, the in-flight look is hot. Think tall boots (stabilizers), structured frocks and tunics in primary colors (with clearly marked exits), ripstop fabrics (in case of turbulence), and sporty arrows reminiscent of runway markers and safety diagrams.

For a dose of high-altitude chic in your own hometown, take ground transportation over to Seaplane, the fashion atelier and showroom recently launched by Kate Towers and Holly Stalder. This more than worthy inheritrix of the Kitty Princess space (next to the Aalto Lounge) takes inspiration from those waterborne miracles of engineering you may remember ferrying cocaine on Miami Vice episodes. The store strives for a spartan, space-race aesthetic--molded plastic chairs in serene sherbet shades, racing stripes on the wall, the current issue of Wallpaper mag on the coffee table. The all-white dressing room is a onetime meat locker decorated with original paintings and backlit bubble wrap.

Kate and Holly feature their own designs, as well as clothing and art by like-minded locals. Half-finished pieces dress the mannequins in the window, including a fetching coat made of lushly tactile whorled wool (I'm sure it will soon have sleeves). Seaplane's clothes are, in Kate's words, "totally amateur," which means that a unique designer piece can be yours for a reasonable price, provided you can tolerate a slightly slanted hem or the occasional raw edge. Seaplane is a store in progress, but its proprietors are sure of its direction.
"I have grand visions for what this place should look like," says Kate, after peeling back the turquoise-print curtain to show me some half-done works hanging in the workroom (if she ever finishes that olive-green cotton shift with the flounce of asymmetrical decorative stitching, you should buy it). Meanwhile, there's plenty to delight the flight-minded, like squared-off mesh shell tops and nylon-strap leather cuffs with quick-release plastic buckles. You are now free to move about the aircraft.

S eaplane

3356 SE Belmont St., 234-2409