The rules of what you can and can't wear on a plane

How is it that an airline gets to decide what you can't wear on board their aircraft?

It's no secret that airlines are fussy about the appearance of their flight crew. Perfectly groomed and tailored, hair just so – Singapore Airlines even stipulates the shade of nail polish its cabin crew are allowed to sport on duty – the rules are tight. But for passengers, and you might have noticed this, it's a little more relaxed.

If you just dragged yourself out of bed in post-bucks-party mode and grabbed whatever items of clothing happened to be lying close at hand before heading to the airport and getting on your flight, that's perfectly OK.

There are no laws that prescribe what you can and can't wear on a flight. Neither Australia's Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development nor the International Air Transport Association, which sets the standards for safety and security across the aviation industry, has anything to say on the matter.

Qantas applies a dress code in its lounges – no thongs or bare feet, no top-to-toe gym wear, no board shorts – but not on flights. Virgin Australia's minimum dress requirement says no bare feet but thongs are OK, "suitable clothing that covers your bottom half" and a shirt, although "singlets are acceptable", so go the Bintang number from that last Bali burnout.

As long as you're not wearing something that might interfere with the safe operation of the aircraft – a suit of armour perhaps, or a hoop skirt – it's up to the airline to decide what's OK, and up to their staff to decide what constitutes suitable attire.

Don't tell me what I can't wear

It's this element of subjectivity that causes problems. The yardstick that airline staffers are most likely to apply is where clothing or the lack thereof offends common decency. Too much cleavage, too much midriff, too much butt peeping from scanty denim shorts – but those are subjective judgements, and elastic, which gives passengers room to fight back.

Also, the judgment is most likely to be delivered either at the boarding gate or on board the aircraft. They're both busy places, there are other people listening to you being told like a naughty child that you're inappropriately dressed, and that's a judgment I don't accept because if how I dress offends you that's your problem so get over it and stop watching.

Even though most passengers will cover up in this situation, the soul-searing scourge of public humiliation is the reason passengers in this position are inclined to bite back. And it's always women in the firing line. They get stroppy, argue, bad words might spill from their lips and that's what gets them shunted off the flight.


Told to change her low-cut and see-through top, British mother-of-two Harriet Osborne complied and covered up with a mate's jumper, but when she arced up and became abusive, flight crew called time and booted her off the EasyJet flight from Malaga to Stansted.

Low-cost Spanish carrier Vueling asked a woman on a flight from Mallorca to cover up when she tried to board wearing what the airline deemed to be a revealing swimsuit. Her friends gave her clothing but she was still denied boarding on account of her dress, according to the woman. Not so, responded Vueling. It was her abuse of staff that got her dumped.

United Airlines took a beating when it refused to allow two 10-year-old girls to board their flight out of Denver. The reason – they were wearing leggings on the Minneapolis- bound flight. According to Shannon Watts, founder of family advocacy group Moms Demand Action, the airline insisted the girls cover up their leggings. But in this case the girls were United pass travellers, which means they're related to a United Airlines employee, and UA imposes tighter dress regulations on its pass travellers than on the general public.

That led to United unzipping its dress code for its pass travellers, and it's pretty restrictive. Among the no-nos, anything that reveals a bare midriff, attire that reveals undergarments, shorts less than three inches above the knee, bare feet or form-fitting pants, tops and dresses. In this case, it wasn't so much the rules that offended the twitterverse but their application. Clothes-shaming 10-year old girls, drawing attention to their bodies? That went about as well as you might expect for United.

Social media lit up recently when singer Aubrey O'Day revealed that an American Airlines flight attendant made her take her shirt off and turn it inside-out in front of the whole cabin before allowing her to fly. "I was SHOCKED," O'Day posted on Twitter. "I literally had to have my breasts in a bra out in front of everyone around me in order to not get kicked off."

Not so fast, other passengers said as they leapt to AA's defence. O'Day's shirt depicted nude bodies and was "extremely vulgar", according to one riposte on Twitter. Also, O'Day might have been overplaying her outrage. "The same Aubrey O'Day who posed nude for Playboy magazine?" quizzed one reader in response to the story when it was posted on the Traveller website. Undeniably. Also the very same Aubrey O'Day reputed to be the reason that Donald Trump jnr's wife of 13 years filed for divorce.

The hijab issue

The more all-enveloping forms of traditional Islamic dress present a potential minefield for airline staff.

In 2017, an Indonesian woman was not allowed to board her flight to London at Rome's Ciampino Airport after she refused to take off her hijab. In her own words, Aghnia Adzkia acknowledged she was asked to do this in private but refused, claiming she was unfairly targeted.

"I wasn't prepared to trust them unless they could cite me a law or provide me with a legal document saying they were authorised to have to check what is underneath of my hijab," she wrote. She subsequently booked another flight to London, this time leaving from Rome's Fiumicino Airport, and complied when asked to remove her hijab.

Last month Air Canada was slammed after airline staff forced a 12-year-old US Squash team player to remove her hijab while boarding at San Francisco International Airport. According to the passenger, she requested to be allowed to remove her headscarf in a private area and in the exclusive presence of female Air Canada agents, but she maintains airline employees refused. The airline did a swift mea culpa and promised to try and be more sensitive.

Saudi Arabian Airlines, which also goes under the name Saudia, has a slightly ambiguous dress code. According to the airline's website, "Saudia is requesting from their guests to abide by a dress code whereby they are clothed in a manner that is in line with public taste or not offensive to other passengers". Given that the conservative Wahhabist-influenced brand of Islam that prevails in Saudi Arabia can be offended at the sight of women's hair, bare arms or calves, this is a broad spectrum with which to upset fellow passengers. Also given that the kingdom is currently trying to woo tourists, the way this plays out for Saudia could prove interesting.

See also: Dress code for women dropped as off-limits country opens to tourists

See also: The rules of what flight attendants can and can't wear