I should’ve been a lot happier than I was to receive the invitation. Two very dear friends, a perfect match for each other, were finally getting married. Unfortunately for me, the happy event was to be held on the other side of the world, in the height of summer, when both flights and hotels are at their most expensive. Finding a gift that adequately expressed both my joy and disgust at their outrageous inconsiderateness would be a tough balancing act.
More to the point, however, I’d have to lug a suit all the way to Australia. It’s only when you try to pack a suit that you realise what a totally inappropriate term ‘suitcase’ is. The trousers are fine, but there’s no way to put a jacket into a case without it coming out looking like a rag tossed to lion cubs for their stimulation and amusement.
There were other jolts to my packing routine too. I’d have to take a tie — which meant buying a tie for the first time since uni — and the sort of smart shoes that nullify any attempt to pack light.
Over the years, travelling has cemented my status as someone never likely to be approached for one of those ‘street style’ fashion pages in magazines. It’s been a thoroughly nerdy descent into the joys of utilitarianism, aided by the realisation that the only places that care about what you’re wearing are the ones you won’t enjoy being in anyway. Thus I end up wearing those Merrell walking shoes that proper hikers would deem woefully inadequate but are just about OK to wear in a bar at night. The same goes for shirts, where the holy grail is one that’s lightweight, has two chest pockets for stuffing cameras and passports in and isn’t going to draw too many contemptuous looks in a half-decent restaurant.
Further realisations come with time. Trainer socks take up far less space than normal socks; long-sleeved shirts can double as jumpers; M&S Blue Harbour shorts pockets are big enough to fit a Kindle in. Each new discovery sends me into further realms of shameful delight. Being sent an absurdly lightweight Craghoppers jacket with nine pockets revolutionised the airport experience forever. Finally, I could stuff pockets with things that would otherwise take the bag over the weight limit — and without having to sweat like Brian Blessed in a library.
Yet the remarkable thing about this obsessive utilitarianism is how rarely it’s put into effect. Those zip-off trousers that become shorts only ever get used as shorts. Take three pairs, and you’ll just wear one for three weeks. The rule of travel is that no one ever cares how mucky their shorts are. The zipped-off legs, meanwhile, just sit crumpled yet spotless at the bottom of the bag
The lightweight jacket never gets worn either. If it’s cold enough for a jacket, you’ll sit indoors. Outside of the airport, no more than a third of the pockets in an item of clothing are ever used simultaneously. And trainer socks go untouched the moment you realise it’s sandals weather for the duration of the trip. But the more unnecessary doses of geeky functionality I can theoretically call upon, the more smug I feel. It matters not that everyone I pass thinks I’m a dishevelled Steve Irwin impersonator. Fashion can bow down at the altar of avoiding baggage fees and getting out of the airport slightly quicker.
Having to take a suit and shoes, however, rules out the cabin-baggage-only gambit. I’d have to lug the suitcase around Oz and — the night before the wedding — plead with the B&B for an iron.
I may have finally got it uncreased, but two minutes into the walk to the venue, it was caked in sweat. Wearing a suit in 35-degree heat is an exercise in futile masochism but, for once, sense of occasion was more important than comfort and practicality. Finally, arriving at the venue, looking like cheese that’s been left under bain marie lights for hours, a few things struck me. Firstly, the wedding was taking place on the beach. Secondly, most people were strolling through the sand in bare feet. And, thirdly, I was the only mug in a suit jacket.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)