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Air travel sure has changed a lot in the past 100 years. Things that used to be commonplace on airplanes — like sleeping berths, piano bars and passengers with lit cigarettes in their hands — are now, for better or worse, relics of the past. As are “stewardesses” in leisure suits, and “stewardesses” in general — it’s been “flight attendant” for a while now.
As the commercial aviation industry has evolved, so too have the uniforms of the people who make it work. In light of both American Airlines and Delta recently giving their garbs a makeover, here’s a look back at the flight attendant uniforms of the past.
The Attire that Started it All
From 1940 to 1942, Delta flight attendants — who were known as “stewardesses”at the time — wore a military-style ensemble, including a navy blue jacket with brass buttons, pleated white silk blouse, gored skirt, overseas cap and white gloves. It was the first uniform worn by Delta flight attendants and it didn’t come cheap — uniforms, which came from Rich’s department store in Atlanta, cost employees $110 (which they could have deducted from their paychecks).
The summer months between 1940 and 1942 brought Delta employees a more warm weather-appropriate uniform: a lightweight beige jacket and gored skirt with a rust-colored open-collar blouse, oval cap and brown and cream spectator heels, all from Neiman Marcus.
In the mid-1940s, skirts got shorter and brass buttons went buh-bye. From 1943 to 1946, Delta’s summer uniforms featured a tan, collarless jacket featuring two plastic buttons, plus a knee-length, box-pleated skirt.
In the summer of 1947, Delta uniforms got yet another tweak. Though they remained a neutral tan color, the hue was a little different. The two-button jacket became a one-button jacket and the skirt lost its box pleating and became a bit narrower.
A Sleeker Style Emerges
For more than a decade — between 1954 and 1965 — Delta flight attendants sported this form-fitting, light blue ensemble, which was paired with a matching overseas cap and navy-and-white stiletto spectator pumps. The uniform made its debut following Delta’s first international flights to the Caribbean and Caracas, Venezuela, which required lighter attire suitable for flights to the warm, tropical locations.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, the narrow-bodied Douglas DC-8 was United Airlines’ aircraft of choice, and its employees’ uniforms, pictured below, were just as sleek.
Brighter Colors — and More Options
From 1968 to 1970, Delta’s winter look was completely in vogue: underneath this red topcoat (there was a raincoat, too), female flight attendants wore wool A-line dresses (in either red or black), a short, double-breasted black jacket, black gloves and alligator print pumps or near-knee-high boots. A fashionable bag completed the look.
In the summer of 1969, color finally hit the friendly skies. Delta’s standard-issue uniform consisted of a set of three polyester-knit dresses in pastel colors: Aquanox Blue, Grenelle Green and Sunshine Yellow. The tall “huntsmen” hats were a must for the time, as they easily fit over sky-high beehive hairdos.
From 1975 to 1978, Delta employees got to choose between trendy or classic: for women, leisure suits, nylon wrap dresses and a traditional blazer with slacks or skirts — in sky blue or camel — were all options. Male flight attendants at the time could choose between a blue or camel suit.
Back to Basics
Suits were back in a big way in the 1980s, and United’s flight attendants had a variety of ways they could rock the trend — as long as it was done in navy blue.
A new decade brought a new look for Delta. From 1979 to 1983, each of the uniform basics — including jackets, pants and skirts — came in three colors: taupe, beige and rose. Pants and skirts could be pleated or not, and there were a variety of silk and gabardine dresses and jumpers from which to choose from as well. Male flight attendants wore light or dark brown suits with striped ties in brown and beige or pink and rose.
In 1983, Delta did away with color and returned to a more traditional look, with tailored navy blue suits for all flight attendants. In addition to being the airlines’ longest-lived uniform, it was the first collection to feature maternity wear in the form of a loose, navy jumper. Though it underwent some small tweaks over the years, this basic uniform remained the Delta standard through 2001.
United, too, took a much more classic approach to its uniforms. In the 1990s, a classic navy blue suit became its new look.
Uniforms Created by Professional Designers
In 2006, Delta collaborated with designer Richard Tyler on a new look, which paired blue staples with bold pops of red, as well as a red wrap dress featuring a cinched waist. During the month of October, that dress turned pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (They broke out the pink again for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.)
On June 25, 2013, tens of thousands of United Airlines employees — including flight attendants, customer service agents and ramp workers — debuted a brand-new look. It was the first time that employees across the board wore similarly-styled uniforms.
On September 20, 2016, more than 70,000 American Airlines employees — including pilots, flight attendants, customer service and premium customer service teams — showed off an all-new look, the updated ensembles the result of a collaboration with designer Cole Haan.
Fernand Fernandez, AA’s VP of global marketing, said, “Our new uniform represents the evolving American which serves the collective goal of adhering to a timeless, classy, yet updated concept. We are striving to become a symbol for the modern flyer.”
Unfortunately, the wool-rich uniform was not a hit with everyone — just a few days after its debut, some employees reported that the clothing was causing headaches and hives. American Airlines was quick to respond, with a spokesperson telling Fortune that the carrier were working hard to ensure the new uniforms would be safe and comfortable for all who wear them.
On October 18, Delta unveiled its latest high-fashion collaboration, a new Zac Posen-designed uniform collection, which will be worn by more than 60,000 of the airlines’ employees, including flight attendants, customer service agents and ramp workers. Non-customer facing employee uniforms were developed by Land’s End, with consultation from Posen.
The collection includes a variety of unique colors, including Passport Plum, Cruising Cardinal and Groundspeed Graphite, with more fashion-forward styling, including V-neck and wrap dresses, peplum sweaters, ottoman skirt suits and swing jackets for women and three-piece suits and crewneck sweaters for men.
“We wanted Delta employees to look glamorous on the job without sacrificing functionality and style,” Posen said of the collection. “I worked alongside employees to understand how they interact with the clothes they wear and developed a look that empowers and excites, because we want Delta’s global workforce to exude the confidence and thoughtfulness that reflects the airline’s brand.”
Only time will tell what future flight attendant uniforms will look like, and they keep going in this glamorous direction, we can’t wait to see what comes next.
Featured image courtesy of American Airlines.
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