When it comes to pilot uniform shirts, is it really worth investing in a decent one? If so, why? What are the benefits and where can you find them?
Most airlines provide pilots with some form of uniform. Even for those that don’t, a pilot shirt can be bought online for less than $20. With this in mind, why should professional pilots fork out the extra cash and go the extra mile to go for a better shirt?
The problem with cheap uniforms
The overarching factor here is that aviators spend a huge amount of time in their pilot uniforms. This doesn’t just include your 900 or so flight hours, but all of the time spent shuffling through airports, waiting in hotel lobbies and positioning to or from work.
The reality is that these garments are often incredibly uncomfortable as they have been crafted from the cheapest materials, in the cheapest possible way. They are stiff and don’t flex with your body. They are not breathable and make the wearer overheat. Sweat sticks to your skin. The materials are scratchy and cause you to itch. They don’t fit well.
This constant level of discomfort likely translates to a decrease in performance and increase in irritability over a given workday. Over an entire career, the impact of poor pilot shirts or airline uniforms can be huge. You can read more about the importance of airline uniforms HERE.
What’s more, aesthetically, cheap shirts are a disaster. They collect creases throughout the day, collars bubble and material deteriorates quickly. No matter how we wish to be judged on our performance, looking terrible simply does have an impact on how we are perceived at work.
Finally, ironing poor quality pilot shirts takes an eternity, eating into a pilot’s always limited downtime.
Given that most pilots would be happy to spend $80 on a decent shirt for a wedding, evening out or special occasion, would it make sense to spend some more cash on something that they wear more often than any other garment?
Indeed, there is a huge frustration in that airlines are often unwilling to make this investment themselves. However, instead of expecting things to change on their own, or continuing to wear something totally sub standard as ‘it’s what we were given’, most pilots are starting to take the view that it’s worth spending a few extra bucks to have a more enjoyable and comfortable day at work.
The arguments for a better shirt:
Using more advanced materials (this doesn’t always mean 100% cotton), manufacturers can create a way better shirt.
Firstly, many modern garments have an element of stretch in them. This improves comfort by accommodating areas of a pilot’s body where they might be larger than the norm – for instance if a wearer has large shoulders for their collar size, a stretch shirt would accommodate this. Where with non-stretch materials, it would have been necessary to select a shirt to accommodate the largest part of your body, stretch shirts allow you to select a pilot shirt that actually fits them.
What’s more, having some flex in the shirt is great when moving your body around the flight deck, especially reaching for an overhead panel. A 4 way stretch can also prevent your shirt from becoming untucked from your pants / trousers as you move around.
High quality performance fabrics or 100% cotton fabrics prevent sweat particles collecting in between the garment and the skin and causing discomfort. This occurs in two main ways – firstly they quickly wick (move) moisture to the fabric’s outer surface. Secondly, they allow moisture to be evaporated away quickly
Using advanced or high cotton fabrics means that pilots get a softer feeling on their skin, instead of the scratchy, plastic-like feeling associated with cheap fabrics. This helps prevent that accumulated feeling of discomfort and feeling fed up at the end of a flying day.
Where many cheap / uniform shirts tend to be a one size fits all garment, having a pilot shirt that is actually cut to your body shape makes it far more comfortable.
Aesthetics / Professionalism
Most cheap shirts tend to heavily crease up throughout the day as a result of movement and items like belts or straps contacting the fabric. Having a shirt that uses performance / non-iron fabrics that are crease resistant allows a pilot to look as sharp as they leave work as when they went in. This pilot shirt is a really good example of this feature.
A decent fabric will prevent skin or undershirts showing through, and give pilots a more professional look.
Every pilot has witnessed one of their colleagues wearing a shirt with frayed fabrics, missing buttons or a bobbled collar. Using better materials will prevent these unsightly issues.
Most cheap shirts are cheap poly blends, meaning that they can be challenging to iron. In fact, pilots spend up to four hours per month doing activities associated with ironing. Having a performance non-iron shirt can be a life saver, making you less stressed for work and giving you your time back. It’s also a bonus when you realise you are running late and needed to be at work 30 minutes ago. The question is, how much is your time worth?
It’s long been the convention that airline pilots are seen walking around airports in ill-fitting, uncomfortable, poor quality pilot uniform shirts. In effect, aviators are forced into spending the entirety of their working lives looking shabby and feeling lousy. However, things are starting to change, with aviators demanding better from their employers and aviation apparel vendors. This guide will show you what a well-fitting airline pilot shirt should look like, why it’s worth investing in one, and how to get a great pilot shirt for under $100.
Why most Pilot Uniform Shirts are terrible
The current status quo is that most professional aviators have little access to good quality uniforms. Employers award contracts to providers offering the lowest possible price, meaning that they provide their pilots with one-size-fits-all, poorly proportioned shirts. Pilots are offered shirts that are often totally inappropriate for their body shape, with a raft of excuses from ‘it allows you to move more freely in the flight deck’ to ‘sorry, we can’t provide shirts that fit everybody’.
For pilots that are looking for shirts elsewhere, options are very mixed. Most pilot store websites offer an unimaginative range of shirts sourced from the same vendors as the airlines. Others offer the opportunity to tailor shirts, but with price tags in the hundreds of dollars and long wait times.
The good news is that there are now specialty online pilot uniform stores that cater specifically for pilots, and can help you get a great fitting shirt for less than $100.
Can you find better fitting pilot shirts?
This doesn’t have to be the case. Other industries have cracked the code, with those working in office roles having the opportunity to buy shirts that look great, without breaking the bank (see companies such as T.M.Lewin and Charles Tyrwhitt). The aviation industry is evolving too, with a number of new companies offering a range of shirt fits (from relaxed fit to slim fit pilot shirts) to aviators who refuse to walk around in cheap, tatty shirts (see ‘what are my options’ below).
Why is a nicely fitting shirt important?
- Time spent wearing it Professional airline pilots work for an average of 17 days a month, meaning you spend a large proportion of your life wearing your pilot uniform. When most pilots would have no problem in splashing out on a nice dress shirt for going out, why skimp on clothing that you will have to wear more than anything else in your wardrobe?
- Comfort: Having a pilot shirt that constantly requires re-tucking, that bunches up around the waist, or is too small on the collar is a constant irritation in the flight deck. This issue can insidiously distract aviators from more important matters. A good fit allows pilots to keep concentrated and stay relaxed whilst at work.
- Professionalism: Wearing a pilot shirt that doesn’t fit looks unprofessional to passengers and colleagues. Conversely, correctly fitting attire will give an impression of competence to one’s peers and perhaps, more importantly, pilot trainers.
- Style: If you value looking sharp, it’s worth investing in better fitting shirts. This is especially relevant for those who like to keep fit, whose body shape would be totally lost in a poorly fitting oversized pilot shirt.
What a perfect fit should look like
The key to selecting a perfect fit will be unique to each individual. Those with an athletic build, or who prefer a tighter fit should go for slim fit pilot shirts. Even slimmer individuals can consider what is often referred to as a fitted pilot uniform shirt. An example of the differences between these two styles can be seen here. Here are a few tips:
A well-fitted collar should comfortably frame your face. A perfect fit is where the collar follows the neck all the way around, but the wearer should be able to insert two fingertips (the ring and the pinkie) between the fabric and the skin.
Shoulder fit is measured in relation to the furthest lateral extent of the shoulder bone. For an optimal fit, the stitch at the top of the sleeve sits perfectly on the edge of your shoulders, allowing arms to move freely.
For pilots who often change between standing and seated positions, a perfect torso fit is key. For a good combination of comfort and style, the pilot shirt should rest lightly against the wearer’s ribcage whilst not stretching around the buttons.
Online shirt fitting guides to look at
How to get a perfect-fitting airline pilot shirt under $100 (or for free!)
So, if like the hundreds of other pilots transitioning to wearing better shirts, and you are convinced that you need to upgrade your uniform, there are a number of ways to achieve this.
1. Shop at a dedicated online aviation uniform store
There are a number of smaller shops online that offer superior shirts available worldwide. You should try a number of shirts and see which one works for you. Bear in mind, be prepared to spend more than the $10 that you would spend for a poor-quality shirt at a large pilot store. Try Airman Pilot Shirts, which offers a great range of fits, including fitted and slim fit pilot shirts.
2. Tailor your current airline shirts
Taking your current shirts to a local tailor can be a decent option. For shirts that are too large around the waist, material can often be easily removed to provide a better fit. However, this solution can often be as costly as just buying a new set of shirts and leaves you with the potentially low-quality material that your shirts are made out of.
3. Persuade your airline management to upgrade
Better shirts make sense. Pilots are happier, more productive, and look better walking around the airport. Getting managers to consider slightly more expensive shirts or a better variety of sizes (such as slim-fit and relaxed fits) can make a big difference to pilots’ lives and wellbeing. Alternatively, convincing the airline to make a contribution to buying shirts on the open market may be a possibility.
The dark days of having to wear whatever is provided to you by your airline are finally over. With a little bit of patience and a small extra investment, pilots can now find stylish pilot shirts that fit a variety of shapes, allowing them to upgrade their professional image and increase the comfort of the clothes that they wear most often.
Overall, sourcing high quality shirts can be a total drag, and an annoying expense. However, in the long run having a decent shirt is likely going to pay itself back many times over in the reduced frustration and discomfort at work, saving a bunch of time ironing and being able to cultivate a more professional image at work. A bunch of great options exist and we outline many of them here in our best pilot shirts of 2023 article, but I think the best option is Airman’s new performance range, which combines the professionalism and aesthetics of a business shirt with the non-iron practicality of performance materials.