Grace Kelly in 'Rear Window'.
Grace Kelly in 'Rear Window'.
Image: HL Group

You’d have thought I’d have cracked it by now. After three years as a fashion editor, someone who spends about four months a year on the road, in every kind of climate and condition, I should be a packing ninja: the kind of person who can throw together a carry-on case to cover every occasion without a moment’s hesitation.

And yet. Still, I fail to pack well. Work or play I can’t quite get it right. On arrival, I find myself with shoes that have become strangely ill-fitting in transit and must be abandoned, throwing every outfit planned around them out of kilter. I bring too many white T-shirts, or too few, or things that need ironing after 10 minutes wear. I pack ribbed knitted tops without remembering to bring the specific undergarment required to make them fall flatteringly. I am cursed to forget fundamentally important items, like sleep wear, or toothpaste, or the hair unguent that daily saves me from looking like a Brian May tribute act.

Rather than packing the things I might need, I find myself weighed down with an excess of options that all seem quite useless on arrival. Travel brings out my worst fantasist tendency to prepare for the life I imagine I lead rather than the one I actually do. The life in which I need to walk further than 20 steps a day, and require some comfortable clothes. Instead, I pack piles of cripplingly high heels and strangely directional daywear that makes me feel weird and self-conscious. Despite my obsessive study of the weather in the run-up to a trip, I seem incapable of bringing clothes that quite correspond to the climate I will arrive in: for Paris couture week, under sweltering skies, I packed a heavy linen trenchcoat and a tweed jacket. I went to Galway, in the rain-sodden west of Ireland, without a waterproof.

But I am learning. I understand now why every fashion editor wears black; everything goes with everything and no one knows you’ve worn the same thing every day for a month. I always bring sneakers, a navy sweater and a pair of boyfriend jeans. I’ve also finally acknowledged that, having holidayed with the same partner for 20 years, I will never, ever wear that rather ostentatious designer dress - or two - I always pack in case I feel like glamming up of an evening. Extra footsie socks for the trainers maybe?  A treaty new pack of Sunspel knickers? But the Saint Laurent Seventies-style silk-crepe folk dress with a balloon sleeve and a piecrust collar? Forget it. It’s just not going to happen.

Like The Karate Kid, however, my training is far from complete. Every time I step into an airport terminal I am haunted by the words of my friend and fellow fashion editor, the inestimably chic Sarah Harris. Sarah is my Mr Miyagi. The master packer. She only ever travels with hand luggage; each trip meticulously prepared for, no detail ill-considered. She recalls Grace Kelly, in Rear Window, as the glacially elegant socialite who magics her overnight kit from a miniature Mark Cross handbag measuring only 13 inches wide. But Sarah is generous with her wisdoms. “Well, of course, you must only bring one pair of shoes to the shows,” she will say from our seats on the front row. “Always wear an old T-shirt under a shirt so that you can get another day’s wear out of it,” she once pronounced: an edict I have lived by ever since.

Grace Kelly magics her overnight kit from a miniature Mark Cross handbag measuring only 13 inches wide.
Grace Kelly magics her overnight kit from a miniature Mark Cross handbag measuring only 13 inches wide.
Image: HL Group

It was Sarah who, while I was tending an especially nasty new-shoe bite one season, enquired as to why I hadn’t “broken them by wearing them around the house in advance?” The query was more incredulous than imperious; surely everyone must schedule such activities to fill their spare time?

To travel with only hand luggage is to enter the realm of the super human. Show me your packing proficiency and I will offer you my utmost respect. And I’m not talking, by the way, about those men who just throw a load of crap into a bag in 10 seconds and then find themselves shivering on a mountainside in Dunton, Colorado, wearing a pair of disintegrated Birkenstocks and a towelling bathrobe. (You know who you are.)

Meanwhile, my education continues. Marching through the departures lounge en route to France last week (five nights, temperatures variable, high chance of precipitation, nearby beach), I offered myself a smug pat on the back for containing all my clothes, toiletries, chargers and reading requirements in a tiny case that would satisfy the scrutiny of a well-known budget airline that slaps massive surcharges on items that haven’t been sufficiently declared in advance. I had packed ruthlessly, casting out all extraneous items that weren’t deemed essential. And then I had packed again, just to make sure.

I was feeling confident. I waltzed through the check in. I sailed through the scanners with my mini liquids, all carefully repackaged, decanted and bagged into their polythene prophylactic. I watched my fellow passengers stumble and scrape with their overladen bags with a gracious but patronising smile.

But approaching the gate, I was suddenly thwarted. “I’m sorry madam,” intoned a spiffy air steward who stood between myself, the aircraft and my imminent ascent to ninja status. “But the flight is really busy today so I’m going to have to put your bag in the hold.”

I blustered, I prevaricated. I begged to keep the bag on board. “You don’t realise how many useless things I didn’t pack in order to keep this suitcase with me,” I pleaded. But it was not to be. The bag went down below. And the worst thing about it? I should have packed that bloody dress after all.

- This article was originally published by the Financial Times 2017.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.

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