Why Everyone Is Obsessed With Celebrity Airport Fashion

jada pinkett smith at the airport


or many of us, going to the airport conjures up images of interminable TSA lines, maze-like parking or even a scorpion attack.

While flipping through a fashion magazine at the gate, however, it’s hard not to come across an entirely different sphere of travel, one where models and actresses in towering heels breeze through security draped in wrinkle-free clothes. They might still have to wait for their luggage at arrivals or drink burnt Starbucks coffee, but they’re a world away. It’s a mixture of “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” and “Wow, I will never strut through JFK in a pair of $10,000 ankle boots.”

Pop culture’s obsession with airport fashion is nothing new. The trend dates all the way back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, when photographers clamored for photos of Marilyn Monroe descending the steps of a plane in Los Angeles or Zsa Zsa Gabor perched on her Louis Vuitton cases en route to the French Riviera. It has continued to this day, with airport paparazzi shots of everyone from Gigi Hadid and Kylie Jenner to Victoria Beckham and Jennifer Aniston dotting the pages of glossy magazines and gossip sites. This fascination with what celebrities wear in airports combines our current generation’s love of social-media access with an age-old obsession concerning the glamorous side of travel and celebrity. It’s the perfect mix of aspirational and achievable.

In the early years of air travel, the curiosity about what celebrities wore in airports was inextricably tied to the novelty and glamour of air travel itself. A domestic flight on TWA in 1955 could cost nearly $1,000 today, adjusted for inflation. Those who did fly in the mid-century often describe putting on their best dresses, complete with heels, gloves and a fresh coif. For celebrities of that era in particular, the desire to distinguish themselves through their travel played a major role in their personas.

Zsa Zsa Gabor
(Photo by A. W. Cox/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Their jet-setting was part of their allure,” Bethan Holt, fashion news director for The Telegraph who has written about this phenomenon, told me in an email. “This was a time not only long before casual and athleisure, but also the very concept of taking regular flights — travel was a luxury in itself. So for the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and more, their default polished glamour look underlined the very act of being in an airport at all — it became the daytime equivalent of dressing for a red carpet.”

Throughout that era, travel was very much an event, not just something to slog through on the way to wherever you were going. Celebrities in particular embraced the attention they received in airports. Instead of wearing sunglasses or shielding themselves from the paparazzi, people like Gabor would wave at their fans or even strike up an impromptu shoot in the arrivals hall.

“These moments also provided her perfect opportunities to show off her jewels, furs and leather goods,” Holt said of Gabor. “It’s part of building that image of wealth and fabulousness which we have come to associate so closely with her.”

While travel has become more accessible, it’s still a sign of status and social mobility to post an Instagram from LAX while heading to a Thai beach or on a tour of Europe. Celebrities might be showing off custom sneakers instead of jewels, but I’d argue that their motivations are the same. Being well-traveled maintains its own form of public cache, and some social-media influencers have built entire careers out of their passport stamps. YouTuber Casey Neistat’s successful vlog frequently dipped into travel, even showing him flying in a first-class cabin on a ticket worth $21,000 (thanks to a free upgrade). Fashion influencers like Jeanne Damas or Camille Charrière ostensibly post about style, but their Instagram accounts are littered with shots of them en route to vacations in Morocco or packing for fashion week in Milan.

The airport remains a stage for celebrities to showcase their sense of style and glamour. Perhaps it is precisely because travel has become more mundane that fans remain interested in seeing what their favorite stars are wearing. With the rise of social media in particular, fans expect access to all areas of their favorite celebrities’ lives. And the behemoth of Instagram isn’t the only thing to have influenced the rise of this obsession. As Kenzie Bryant noted in her 2016 article for Racked, airport photography is cheap and easy to take. In the early aughts, when online fashion blogs were just starting to proliferate, paparazzi found that they could make a decent day’s work just by hanging out in LAX.

The mixture of the accessible and the aspirational in today’s airport fashion is also a perfect fit for the changing ways that people shop and consume media. Celebrities like Kendall Jenner or Jennifer Aniston will often mix $40 sneakers with a $2,000 purse or jacket. In just a couple of clicks, you can buy that pair of shoes — or at least a pair that looks just like them. As we stand barefoot on cheap carpet in a security line or sip lukewarm coffee at a gate, the idea that another world of travel exists — if we only make a small purchase — is tantalizing.

Emily Ratajkowski
(Photo by starzfly/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

I’ll admit to having bought a particular French face mist because I had read so many actresses and models raving about its travel hydration benefits. And as I misted that stuff onto my face in the coach cabin, I did feel a little less dread at the prospect of spending six hours with my fellow man. Even if the effects were mostly in my head, it made the experience slightly better.

“When you see celebrities breezing through the process, it almost reminds you of the distance between celebrities and [us]. Well shit, they make traveling look so, so easy,” explained Lainey Lui, CTV television personality and creator of the popular gossip blog Lainey Gossip.

In a recent arrival at LAX, Emily Ratajkowski embodied this idea. In her low-slung pants, denim jacket, gray crop top and what appeared to be fuzzy Birkenstocks, she made travel look easy in a way that is wholly unachievable. I’ve spent too long thinking about this photo of her. It’s in some ways a practical outfit (who doesn’t want the comfort and breathability of a fur-lined sandal?), but in an essential way it’s absurd. Who wears a crop top to the airport? Wouldn’t the seatbelt dig into her skin? Why doesn’t she have any luggage?

I will continue to ponder these questions, possibly forever. And in the meantime, I’ll still peruse celebrity travel tips while waiting for my boarding zone to be called, in the name of research. Because some wistful part of me likes to think that Zsa Zsa Gabor — a woman who jet-setted well into her 70s all while dripping in diamonds — just might have the answers.

Jess McHugh is a New York-based journalist writing about the intersection of culture, politics and other things that strike her fancy. Her work has appeared in The Paris ReviewThe Nation,, Village VoiceInternational Business Times, CNN, and The Believer, among others. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Photo by LAXPICS/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images via Getty Images.

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