Women's Fashion

Flight co-ordinates

Clothes for travelling call for comfortable separates that work, and play, well together. Lucia van der Post finds covetable pieces with serious mileage.

May 08 2010
Lucia van der Post

It’s amazing to think back to how travelling used to be. Just fancy: once upon a time most people used to wear their smartest clothes for even quite small journeys. My mother, for example, never went up to “town” without her gloves and quite often a hat. As for boarding a plane, why, that required the gladdest of rags. I well remember my own first trip to Paris and buying a ravishing pink linen dress specially for the occasion. Ordinary togs just wouldn’t have seemed right.

As for those indelibly memorable images of the film stars of yesterday – Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and their ilk – gliding down aeroplane steps kitted out in hats, gloves, high-heeled shoes and furs, it all seems like something from Jurassic Park. Catch sight of Sienna, Madonna, Gwyneth and their friends as they waft around the world, and judging by their kit they could be sauntering down to the local supermarket.

I’ve recently been brooding on the matter of what it takes in today’s world to look good and feel comfortable while on the move. If you’re travelling smallish distances in very similar climate zones, it’s not too much of a problem (the kit that works in a London winter or summer will do fine when you land in Paris or New York), but when swapping grey, chilly skies for something hotter and sunnier, it requires a bit of working out. Take my most recent conundrum: I was leaving London on a November evening and would be arriving some 36 hours later on a remote tropical island. I wanted neither to catch pneumonia as I left nor be swelteringly encumbered when I landed.

I recalled the really snappy dressers I’ve travelled with. I remembered being on a press trip with the then fashion editor of The Observer who was testing out her wardrobe for a round-the-world trip, all of which had to fit into one small carry-on. The key ingredients were four white T-shirts, some silk separates all in the same deep blue colour (skirt, trousers, jacket) and a folding iron.

Then I thought about the alarmingly chic woman with whom I frequently go on trips to India who has cracked the problem for her: she only ever wears white and black and only takes carry-on luggage. She travels in white or black trousers with a white T-shirt or shirt, a contrasting jacket (ie, white and black) and flat pumps. She carries a cashmere cardie and a pashmina in a largish bag, while in the cabin luggage are jewelled sandals, her toiletries and a variety of white and black garments. She looks divine. But white and black makes some of us look like waitresses, and I think my feet have forgotten how to walk in flat shoes. That’s what happens when you’re only 5ft 2in.

So, back at the drawing board, this is what I learnt. It hardly needs saying that travel is not the time for high fashion: classic co-ordinated clothes work best. Deciding on the colour palette first is a big help. The colours that move effortlessly from cold to hot and back again are khakis, greys and variations on stone/cream/nude – exactly the colours of many collections in the shops now. Designer trans-seasonal collections are a particularly good place to start looking.

Quite obviously, the wardrobe for this sort of travelling has to be built around layers. I have in my mind’s eye a kind of classy Lauren Hutton look (one might as well aim high). You know the sort of thing: easy stone trousers, a white shirt, a khaki trench, tan belt, a V-neck cashmere cardigan, kitten heels (also, hurrah, back in fashion), a big brown bag and a bright scarf that adds a bit of zip.

I thought I’d hand the problem to Selfridges’ personal shopping team. Here’s what they came up with: leave London in a pair of Alexander McQueen black crepe, loosely tapered trousers (£470) or, if like so many of the late designer’s creations, they’ve sold out, opt for a similar silk style by Matthew Williamson (£495), wearing tights underneath. Team them with a Céline sleeveless draped-front blouse in cream (£620) and a Rick Owens long, slate-grey cashmere cardigan (from £515). Over the top put on a high-necked, lightweight beige trench coat, also by Céline (£1,900), and on the feet wear a pair of black Burberry patent wedges (£210). In your hand luggage take a pair of Chloé beige cotton wide-leg trousers (£357) and pair with the Céline blouse on arrival (minus tights, cardigan and coat). This is certainly a good template for a very elegant and long-lasting travel wardrobe – much of which would be really useful when the holiday snaps are long folded away.

But, rifling through what I already had, here’s what I actually travelled in: I started out in a pair of easy, light wool harem pants in soft coral teamed with an old Agnès B ivory satin shirt, a cream cashmere cardigan and a lightweight stone-coloured nylon/polyester parka, topped with a mushroom-coloured pashmina. I wore tights and some black wedge sandals. In my hand luggage I took a pair of cotton easy trousers so that all I needed to do en route was ditch the tights, the wool trousers and the cardigan, and I was set for the tropics.

Splendid versions of all these looks are currently in the shops. Firstly, comfort matters hugely and the more refined versions of harem-style trousers – kind of updated sweat pants – are not only wildly fashionable, they also look good and are brilliantly comfortable. Burberry Prorsum has some very chic beige silk pleated trousers (£395) while Vionnet (thrillingly, just relaunched) has a fabulous creamy silk pair (£525) that are easy yet elegant and would be brilliantly useful in civilian life. If you don’t want to spend quite so much, Whistles’ sand-washed black silky combat trousers (£95) are also very loose and easy.

Two other labels worth exploring are Max and Co and Schumacher. The former has some silky combat trousers in khaki (a very good colour for travelling) and black for £129, while Schumacher has rather more luxurious versions, in black and silver-grey, at £259. In fact, almost all the good designer collections have them and they’re the perfect travelling trousers.

Then one needs a great jacket/parka/coat. Now, we all know about the Burberry trench, and if it suits you it’d be perfect. Stylist Annabel Hodin, who sorts the wardrobes of many a troubled dresser, says that her first port of call is always Prada, which every season does a fashionable take on a lightweight parka (from £685). And Whistles, again, has a terrific gabardine jacket for £130. If you have a boyfriend jacket lurking in your wardrobe, that would be just the thing, otherwise Chloé’s summer collection has a beautiful creamy silk one (£1,235), while Elizabeth and James has an easy-to-wear, loose cotton blazer (£365).

Now for T-shirts: essential travelling companions. It’s worth buying one or two designer brands which are more fun (there’s a gorgeous one by Yves Saint Laurent with a bold velour design for £205) but for plain T-shirts that keep their shape, feel soft and wash well, get them from Velvet (from £62).

There’s nothing better than quality cashmere, and House of Cashmere has a selection of T-shirts and cardigans by the Italian company Colombo that are gossamer fine and come in a huge range of chic colours (from £250). Another Italian brand, Aviu, also has some deeply desirable cashmere cardigans (£187), so delicate they pack into a sunglasses case.

As for shoes, every season Prada does a version of its elasticated pump, which has a little bit of a heel for those, like me, who don’t “do” flats. This season it also has a great kitten heel (from £300), which is a perfectly viable height to wear travelling and much more useful at the other end. For those lucky mortals who don’t feel they need heels, Bensimon canvas shoes (from £19) are very stylish in a Katharine Hepburn sort of way. Hodin, who is enviably tall and slim, wears old-fashioned canvas shoes from John Lewis children’s department (from £5). And I recently travelled to India with a woman who wore a sturdy version of flip-flops with Japanese socks (available from Tabio, from £6.50), which separate out the big toe – they looked fine for the plane and, of course, came in awfully handy once back on terra firma.

Every traveller needs a great bag. Hodin is currently sporting a huge black patent-effect Marks & Spencer version (at the moment there’s a good one at £29.50) but for sheer chic it would be hard to beat Balenciaga’s elegantly simple brown leather Paper bag (£855).

For a one-stop source of an ineffably chic travelling wardrobe, it’s hard to beat Bamford. The collection always has beautifully simple co-ordinated clothes in chic greys, navys and black (T-shirts from £95) that could make the basis of the perfect capsule wardrobe. They are classily elegant and made in the finest fabrics: linen/cottons and lightweight cashmeres.

And don’t forget the pashmina. Planes are the devil for catching flu, and even in the hottest places you’ll need it to deal with the air conditioning. The best London sources for authentic versions are Few and Far (£350) and the Livingston Studio (£265), but House of Cashmere has some fine ones too (£40).

And a final tip from Annabel Hodin: “If ever you see the perfect travelling garment, snap it up – whether it’s a T-shirt with a bit of glamour, say a bow or a bit of grosgrain, or a lightweight jacket. For basics, Joseph never lets me down. It always has lightweight cashmere [from £120] with a scoop-, V- or round-neck.”