How real ‘Mad Men’ invented the sex-kitten stewardess

The 6th season of AMC’s Mad Men kicks off Sunday, April 7 with a two hour episode that will likely transport viewers back to the clothes, cocktails, cigarettes and cultural shifts that were taking place in the late 1960s.

AIR STRIP

The series has occasionally portrayed the glamor and excitement of air travel and the seemingly wild and carefree lives led by that era’s female flight attendants. But, according to a new book about the history of airline stewardesses, it was men – and some women – at Mad Men-like advertising agencies that invented the image of the sexy stewardess in the first place.

In The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon journalist and historian Victoria Vantoch writes that in the mid-1960s, advertising firms trying to “sex up” the stuffy reputation of early airlines began by replacing ads portraying female flight attendants as helpful, girl next door types with images of “beguiling new stewardesses” promising coffee, tea and more.

Stewardess vintage

Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Vantoch about what she learned from poring over thousands of airline print ads, interviewing stewardesses and advertising executives and reading through internal agency papers related to early airline advertising campaigns.

Before Mad Men advertising agencies got involved with the airline industry, how were stewardesses portrayed and promoted?

“In the 1940s and 1950s, the stewardess was popularly imagined as a paragon of virginity, wholesomeness and domesticity. Airlines cultivated the airline stewardess image carefully. She was the consummate homemaker: an expert at pampering men, serving casserole and looking pretty.”

How did the ‘in-flight’ image of stewardesses in the 1950s compare to their real life experiences?

“There was a huge gulf between gender ideals and real women’s lives in mid-century America. In a way, the stewardess icon resolved that deep chasm between real life working women and the fantasy of the full-time happy housewife. Stewardesses appeared to be these quintessential 1950s housewives, yet there were simultaneously ambitious, independent career women who traveled far from home.”

What happened to that wholesomeness when Mad Men advertising firms got involved in the 1960s?

“During the 1960s, advertising agencies were trying to make airlines seem more hip and cool, so they would appeal to the emerging youth market. These ad agency executives knew that the youth counterculture and the sexual revolution were spreading across American culture and they knew it was becoming important to resonate with these new cultural mores.”

And how did they go about transforming the stewardess image from wholesome, capable and virginal into something else?

“To appeal to the nation’s new 1960s mores, these ad agencies cultivated a hipper, sexy stewardess dressed in trendy mini-dresses and uniforms that were also more revealing. The first airline to really create the sexy stewardess was Braniff. Advertising pioneer Mary Wells took over the Braniff airlines advertising and rolled out a campaign called the “Air Strip,” featuring stewardesses stripping off layers of their uniforms.”

That certainly would draw attention to the in-flight safety announcement. What did other airlines do?

“Other airlines followed suit: airline ads began featuring stewardesses with teased hair, lying down on airplane seats and looking seductively at the viewer. TWA unveiled paper dress uniforms for their stewardesses, which ripped easily in flight. Pan Am kept hemlines lowest longest, but eventually they raised stewardess uniform hemlines as well.”

It seems like all that sex-kitten stuff would appeal to men. But weren’t women flying as passengers during this time as well?

“It wasn’t simply about selling air travel to businessmen; it was about selling air travel to the middle-class, including women, who wanted to be young, hip, and stylish.”

And how did the sex-kitten image of flight attendants compare to their real-life experiences?

“Real stewardesses did not passively accept this new image and had been expressing, protesting, and legally fighting sex discrimination in the workplace long before the 1970s women’s movement gave a language and context for their complaints. In fact, stewardesses won some of the first legal victories for women in the workforce and beat the tobacco industry with the first ban against smoking in the workplace.”

(Photos courtesy Victoria Vantoch)

My interview with Victoria Vantoch – “How real life ‘Mad Men’ invented the sex-kitten stewardess” first appeared on NBCNews.com Travel