The other kind of runway: How society has shaped the flight attendant uniform evolution

Jan 4, 2020

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There’s a fascinating undercurrent when you board an airplane, one that might not even register as you search for your seat and stow your suitcase. But it’s an integral part of every airline’s image – and it centers on the flight attendants’ uniforms.

“There is a psychological element to airline uniforms,” explains John Hill, who recently retired after 33 years as the assistant director of the SFO Museum at the San Francisco Airport and the curator in charge of aviation. Hill spearheaded the museum’s ambitious 2016 exhibition called “Fashion in Flight,” which explored the evolution of the uniform, beginning with the first stewardesses hired in 1930 by United Airlines.

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Those women were all registered nurses and their uniforms reflected that. When commercial aviation began, the new airlines wanted passengers to know they were safe in the hands of those trained nurses.

Flying the friendly — and fashionable — skies. (Image courtesy of United Airlines)

“So right out of the gate, you’ve got this sort of Florence Nightingale look to that early uniform, with their cap and cape, done in a color scheme that was a play on the aircraft paint job,” Hill says. “So right away there were these symbolist ideas built into the uniforms. And a projection of brand, with the corporate identity just imbued into these uniforms,” he explains.

Eleanor Ginsberg, a former United Airlines flight attendant and curator of the large uniforms collection at the Flight Path Museum at LAX, adds, “The first United stewardesses would actually change to an actual nurses’ uniform once they got on board.”

It’s hard to imagine in 2020 that back in the day all flight attendants were not only female (and all pursers, who were the plane cabin’s bosses, were men), they were also required to be single and childless to get the job – and young, too. Society was comfortable with women working outside the home and being responsible for the passengers’ safety and comfort – but only if they didn’t have husbands and families.

There were height and weight restrictions as well.

Read more: A Brief History of Flight Attendant Uniforms — in Pictures

As air travel expanded from the 1940s to the 1970s, those rules stayed in place, as Ginsberg recalls from experience.

“United made us sign an actual agreement that said, ‘I will not get married while I am a stewardess and  I will quit at age 32 because I’ll be too old to fly.’ They told us straight out, ‘You’ll be too old at age 32 to want to be a flight attendant or a stewardess,'” she recalls with disbelief. “And we believed them!”

And the uniforms reflected that attitude, especially after what Hill calls “the military era” of the late 1930s through the 1950s. Throughout those years, as more and more carriers began flying, the demand for stewardesses meant that the nursing requirement disappeared, replaced with a more strict sense of professionalism among the women.

Transcontinental & Western Air hostesses, 1939. (Photo credit: SFO Museum/TWA Clipped Wings International, Inc.)

“The look of uniforms became a sort of militarism,” Hill explains. “There’s a beautiful United Airlines uniform from the 1940s that has a much more crisp cut and a braid on the cuff and is done in a gray color that’s all a flat-out effort to bump up the authoritarian nature of the profession.”

Then, as society in the United States and beyond began its seismic shift in the 1960s, uniform design went through the same radical change. Suddenly, stewardesses became the beacon for fashion-forward women – they were the cool cats, the gals whose lives were to be envied as they wore clothes on the job designed by the world’s greatest couture designers. Creating looks that ranged from elegant to totally hip, Valentino, Dior, Balenciaga, Lauren and many others – most famously of all, Pucci (for Braniff International Airways) – made airline stewardesses into rock stars.

Braniff International Airways hostess uniform by Emilio Pucci, 1966. (Photo credit: SFO Museum)
United Airlines stewardess uniform by Jean Louis, 1968. (Photo credit: SFO Museum)

Southwest Airlines introduced uniforms with short-short hot pants in the early 70s, while Pacific Southwest Airlines decked its “stews” out in brightly colored mini-dresses paired with go-go boots and hot pants that peeked out in a titillating fashion. It was a time of change in society – and a time when men were still not hired as flight attendants and women were disposable, with most airlines still requiring them to be single, childless and gone by their early 30s.

United Airlines female flight attendant uniform by Stan Herman, 1976. (Photo credit: SFO Museum)

By the 1980s, men were finally allowed to work in the cabins (thus the new term “flight attendant” came into existence); women won the right to be married, have children and work past 30, and uniforms changed once again. Women wore long pants or more demure dresses and skirts, men wore jackets, vests or simply shirts and slacks, and everyone was in shoes they actually found comfortable.

Read more: Virgin Atlantic Flight Attendants No Longer Have to Wear Makeup on the Job

Today, the look of the flight attendant has evolved into what can be called casual chic by designers like Zac Posen, who in 2018 revamped the complete look of Delta Air Lines’ uniforms. The designs — for better or worse — combine style and practicality – which reflects modern society’s current dressing norms. As Posen said when his collection launched, “One of the most important things for me was the fabrication development, creating wearable technology that had never been brought into uniforms before. Creating uniforms made from cutting-edge fibers, anti-stain to antimicrobial, that are all machine washable, beautiful and clothes that work on every body type.”

Delta uniforms by Zac Posen, 2018.

Airlines are still embracing the idea that passengers are subconsciously aware that flight attendants’ uniforms are something special and that they subtly influence public opinion of the airline itself. Alaska Airlines will launch a new Luly Yang-designed uniform collection in 2020, which Sangita Woerner, the company’s vice president of marketing, says captures perfectly the airline’s “fresh, West Coast vibe.”

Alaska Airlines, Horizon Air and Virgin America flight attendants model various styles being tested over the next 60 days. (Photo credit: PRNewsfoto/Alaska Airlines)

So next time you step onto an airplane, take a closer look at what the flight attendants are wearing – it may just be a look at the future of where society is going next.

Read more: Fashion Takes Flight: Our Favorite Designer Airline Uniforms

Feature image credit: United Airlines Archive.

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