Confessions of a Packing Maximalist

When Mrs. Charlotte Drake Martinez Cardeza of Philadelphia settled into suite B 51-55 on the Titanic, she had with her 14 trunks, four suitcases, and three crates of baggage containing, among other items, 70 dresses, 38 feather boas, 10 fur coats, and 91 pairs of gloves. We know this because Mrs. Cardeza, who survived on Lifeboat 3, filed a staggering 18-page, single-spaced insurance claim against the White Star Line, seeking recompense for that lost ermine-trimmed coat and those vanished veils and parasols.

There’s a reason Mrs. Cardeza needed all that stuff: fashionable women of her day were forever changing outfits—putting on and taking off different ensembles for dining, dancing, and shopping, even donning elaborate tea gowns, which never actually saw sunlight but were worn just for sitting around the parlor.

As fate would have it, I too have complicated wardrobe requirements when I hit the road. And it’s not only because I frequently travel to Europe to cover the biannual fashion shows, where my colleagues appear to switch garments as often as an Edwardian matron (How do they manage it? Do they FedEx Goyard steamer trunks to the Hôtel de Crillon? Sneak off to Le Bon Marché to replenish hotel armoires daily?) but also because my personal style could hardly be called minimalist—and, in fact, depends heavily on puffy frocks and layered petticoats. My taste is fiercely nonconformist (well, as fierce as you can be when you are prancing around in a pink sequined dirndl and a scarlet velvet cloak).

I am sure that Mrs. Cardeza had a packing system, and I also have a carefully plotted routine, honed over decades of trial and error. First, rest assured that I do not have anything in common with those braggarts who spend six months in 12 capitals with two pairs of black pants and one T-shirt, insisting that they can do magic tricks with scarves. In fact, my situation is quite the opposite: I frequently don’t have the right things with me no matter how much I bring, whether I’m going to the flea market in Tangiers or a nightclub in Moscow.

My predicament is exacerbated by the fact that whenever I check a bag, I am convinced it will not appear unmolested on the other side of the world, so am reluctant to fill it with anything more valuable than shampoo and skivvies. Let me be clear: I consider my wardrobe more a collection of irreplaceable artworks than a bunch of things to wear. That my luggage has never failed to arrive in no way allays this fear—in fact, it only reinforces my conviction that the odds are against me, that the next trip will be the one with the baggage disaster.

Since my carry-on must do the heavy lifting, I have been forced to employ strategies that can be more than a little embarrassing. Summer or winter, you will see me in my heaviest clothes, waddling up to the security gate in something like, say, a Dries Van Noten smock over two skirts and a vintage petticoat, in an attempt to smuggle a few more garments onto the plane. This explosion of fabric inevitably results in my being forced to submit to a series of humiliating and invasive security-related procedures, since, let’s face it, there could be an entire arsenal stashed under my ensemble.

Can there be a less elegant way to begin a journey than planting your Fogal-clad feet on two filthy yellow rubber footprints, waiting for a total stranger to stick her hands up your dress and dust you down with a powdery substance? No matter! I just smile when the words “Female alert!” ring out from the TSA agent at the X-ray machine as I approach. To forestall this body search, I have been known to visit the ladies’ room, peel off a few layers of clothing, stuff them into the largest conveyance that could possibly pass as a piece of “hand luggage,” and hope that this now-diminished costume will get me waved through. Alas, this only works half the time. “Thank you for keeping us safe!” I cry when the guard realizes there is nothing under my dress—except maybe another dress.

At least now I am rushing to the ladies’ pain-free. For years I insisted on toting a battered Louis Vuitton duffel, convinced that this bag made me look like Sara Murphy circa 1920, heading off to the Riviera, even when I nearly dislocated my shoulder carrying it. So I moved on to what seems in retrospect to be an insane solution, though it made perfect sense to me at the time—I bought the duffel its own collapsible metal cart, secured it under a crosshatch of bungee cords, and dragged the whole monstrosity through the airport. Of course, I had to collapse the contraption at the door of the plane and tug both it and the 100-pound duffel down the aisle, rolling over people’s toes as I fought my way to the depths of coach.

“Get wheels!” my mom pleaded for years. “Look how cute the flight attendants look with their little rolling suitcases!” But every time I considered this solution, I heard the words of a stylish photographer friend echoing in my brain. “You can’t have wheels,” he said in a low, disgusted whisper. “It’s a terrible gesture when you are pulling it!” Terrible gesture or not, I did eventually concede, and the result has been life-changing. I am now the poster child for the rabid cult of Rimowa, an ingenious brand that relies on some kind of advanced technology (or maybe just four wheels?) that enables me to glide through the airport as if I am walking a shiny, cherry-red greyhound. And it’s not just the ease of motion—these things also have flat tops where you can stack expandable Longchamp totes (another remarkable baggage innovation) that allow you to transport all those fashion items you found so irresistible when you tried them on in foreign fitting rooms and now will never wear again. But that’s another story.

If I had more time, I could travel by boat, which would solve my problem. You can bring an almost endless number of cases on board, making you look like you just stepped out of a Fred Astaire movie as you fidget on the buffet line. In fact, Cunard offers a White Star shipping service that will fly your luggage from home to the ship—as many pieces as you like!—so long as they will fit in your stateroom. Appealing as this notion may be, it is alas of limited usefulness: I usually have to be somewhere in eight hours, not eight days. And anyway, wouldn’t I be consumed with worry that my cases, torn from my hands and flying on their own to some distant dock, would lose their way?

Annoyed friends and colleagues, stuck waiting for me on the other side of security, have gently suggested I modify my personal style just a little. But despite the inconvenience, I stick to my guns (perhaps not the most felicitous turn of phrase when it comes to air travel). And just when I think I am the only lonely pilgrim dolled up in layers of tulle while my fellow travelers cavort happily in Juicy Couture, another underappreciated, overdressed stalwart will sail into view. En route to the Life Ball, in Vienna, one year, I spied the fabulously louche New York nightlife legend Amanda Lepore, poured into a curvaceous satin frock and teetering on vertiginous stilettos while twirling an enormous hatbox. And what a delightful sight she was! Though she was channeling Jayne Mansfield and my costume was closer to Minnie Mouse, we shared a complicit glance—sisters under the skin. If you listened closely over the din of the loudspeakers, you could almost hear the spirit of Mrs. Cardeza, resplendent in a lace-trimmed tea gown, cheering us on.

Lynn Yaeger is a contributing writer for Vogue.