From the figure-enhancing uniforms worn by Pan Am stewardesses in the early 1960s to the hot pants donned by crew at Southwest Airlines in the 1970s, flight attendant fashions have long fascinated and even titillated the flying public, and in turn have played a role in the passenger experience. But recent decades have seen airlines embrace practicality over flamboyance in uniform design. With the help of Delta Air Transport Heritage Museum archives manager Marie Force, as well as some current and former Delta flight attendants, the APEX editor’s blog takes a look back at the fashions of yesteryear and considers what the future has in store.
When did the first flight attendants officially take to the skies? The answer is 1922, when Great Britain’s long since defunct Daimler Airway hired male stewards to board passengers, serve lunch and provide much-needed moral support to fliers. Females joined the ranks – and quickly became a common fixture in flight – eight years later, in 1930, when Ellen Church became the first stewardess working for Boeing Air Transport. These early flight attendants, who were required to have a background in nursing, wore functional and professional clothes that let them accomplish their inflight tasks whilst distinguishing them from the passengers on board.
In the 1940s World War II changed the nursing prerequisite for hostesses, as many nurses were occupied with assisting in the war effort. But a woman’s physical appearance – a pretty countenance and slim figure – was as much a part of her attire as her actual uniform. A rule that dictated how much yardage could be used to make skirts and jackets around this time saw the introduction of more form-fitting outfits (pictured to the right).
A great innovation in flight attendant wear in the 1950s was the smock/apron, as it preserved the uniform from stains and spills during meal service, says Marie Force of the Delta Air Transport Heritage Museum. In the 1960s, notes Force, revolutionary fabric blends emerged “making uniforms easier to clean, less prone to wrinkles and allowing for more movement by the wearer”.
As uniform design also accentuated curves and femininity, female air hostesses started being seen as sex symbols.
The 1970s is an era known for its hot pants, mini skirts and flared pants for women, including female flight attendants. But were men’s uniforms ever an important consideration for designers?
Marie Force says, “Yes, I think so at Delta. Male flight attendants started to work at Delta (1973) at the same time that the FA uniform collections were expanding and offering mix-and-match pieces and a range of colour options. Delta’s uniform wear guidebook from 1979, offered the men three colours of suits.”
What was important in the 1980s uniforms? For Delta, it was the introduction of maternity wear for pregnant flight attendants. Additionally, uniforms became more practical, and less sexy. There was a general movemnet toward serious and professional-looking designs, and away from the scantily-clad look championed in the prior decade. As more men were entering the profession, both sexes had to be considered in uniform design.
The 1990s ushered in business suit-oriented uniforms, as airlines adopted a more no-nonsense approach to customer service.
These days, airlines are hiring widely-known fashion designers to design attendant uniforms that are both stylish and functional. Beth Blair, flight attendant for Delta Connection carrier Compass Airlines, shares, “My airline let’s us wear boots that hit just below the knee with our skirts and dresses and I love it! My boots keep me warm in the winter, look stylish with the uniform and since they zip up it is easy going through security.”
When asked what improvements should be considered Blair says, “I admit, it would be fun to have uniforms that are trendy and attractive like in the past. It would bring back some of the fun of flying. Since flight attendants come in all shapes and sizes these days it would behove airlines and uniform makers to consider offering a variety of dress choices, and offer a variety of choices. That way everyone has a chance to look flattering in their uniform.”
Many current and retired flight attendants emphasise the need for future uniforms designs to be created with functionality, practicality and simplicity of care in mind.
Bethany Burke, a former Delta flight attendant, says, “I think designing a flight attendant uniform has to take into account the physical part of the job (lifting, stretching and bending) and must have styling that can be appropriate for the 22 year old or the 60 year old. And please don’t give us pieces that have to be dry cleaned because we don’t get an allowance for that and often don’t have the time in between trips. Everything needs to be washable!”
Because flight attendants remain on the front line of inflight customer service, the future of their required attire needs to chart a course that is fashionable, yet wearable, and most importantly comfortable once at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.