Flight attendants

Fashionable & frivolous flight attendant attire

Here’s part of a fun slide show I put together for CNBC Road Warrior and NBC News Travel on some fashionable and, at times, frivolous uniforms worn by airline flight attendants over the years.

1_Intro_Air Hostess

Courtesy International Women’s Air & Space Museum

Since 1930, when efficient, caped nurses became the first stewardesses, it’s been a tradition for flight attendants to look great while making sure airline customers are comfortable and safe.

The role of the flight attendant hasn’t really changed, but cabin crew outfits certainly have. Here’s a look at some of the chic, fashionable and intriguing uniforms that have been spotted in the skies.

Boeing Nurses

Courtesy: The Boeing Company

In 1930, Ellen Church became the first airline stewardess after convincing Boeing Air Transport (now United Airlines) that the presence of onboard nurses would go a long way in helping early passengers overcome their fear of flying.

Seven other registered nurses soon joined Church’s team, gathering to pose for this photo wearing uniforms made of dark green wool, with matching green and gray wool capes.

3_ Braniff1966

A Braniff 1966 Pucci uniform. From the collection of Cliff Muskiet www.uniformfreak.com

“Back in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s all stewardess uniforms looked alike,” said Cliff Muskiet, curator of Uniform Freak, an online museum of flight attendant uniforms. The only colors used were navy blue, dark green and brown for winter uniforms and light blue, light green and beige for summer uniforms, said Muskiet.

It gave stewardesses “a very conservative look,” he said. During the mid-to-late 1960s, however, airlines began turning to fashion designers and ad agencies to cultivate a hipper, sexier image for flight attendants. In 1966, Braniff International Airways crew members would be hard to miss wearing this eye-catching, geometric print dress with matching tights by Italian designer Emilio Pucci.

Braniff Air Strip

Courtesy: The Braniff Collection

A titillating print and TV advertising campaign for Braniff in 1965 was called the “Air Strip” and featured a Pucci-designed uniform with several layers that could be removed during a flight.

“The TV commercial depicted a stewardess performing an airborne striptease,” said Victoria Vantoch, author of “The Jet Sex—Airlines Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon.”

“Braniff turned the stewardess into a patently sexual icon and other airlines soon followed,” she said.

Bubble Helmet

Image: Braniff Bubble Helmet Braniff Collection, The History of Aviation Collection, Eugene McDermott Library, University of Texas at Dallas.

In the mid-1960s Pucci also created an unusual clear plastic bubble helmet as part of the uniform line designed for Dallas-based Braniff. The helmets weren’t intended to be worn into space, but rather to protect a flight attendant’s hairdo if she needed to walk across a windy tarmac.

I’ll be back with part two of this slide show in a future post, but in the meantime, here’s a link to the full slide show on CNBC Road Warrior.

At SFO: Flight Attendant Celebration Day

Flight Attendant Uniforms

If you’re passing through San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday, August 20, 2013, be sure to stop by the Louis A Turpen Aviation Museum in the International Terminal for Flight Attendant Celebration Day, beginning at 10 a.m.

The SFO Museum exhibition United We Stand: Female Flight Attendant Uniforms of United Airlines is there and the schedule of events includes talks, short subject films and commemorative speeches.

United We StandFemale Flight Attendant Uniforms of United Airlines

The Flight Attendant Celebration Day events are free and there will be complimentary refreshments. They’ll even validate your parking.

Flight Attendant Celebration Day at SFO Airport

United We StandFemale Flight Attendant Uniforms of United Airlines

United Air Lines stewardess uniform 1957–1958, courtesy SFO Museum

If you happen to be at San Francisco International Airport on August 20th, 2013, make your way over to the library at the Louis Turpen Aviation Museum in the International Terminal for Flight Attendant Celebration Day.

The event will run from 10 am until 3 pm and celebrate the history of flight attendants with talks, short subject films and commemorations, along with complimentary refreshments and free validated parking.

Here’s a link to the scheduled events of the day.

Even if you can’t be on hand for Flight Attendant Celebration Day on August 20th, be sure to stop by the museum to see the current exhibition United We Stand: Female Flight Attendant Uniforms of United Airlines, which will be there through the end of September 2013.

Mixed reviews for new uniforms on United

United_uniforms in the terminal

Courtesy United Airlines

Virgin America employees got swanky Banana Republic-designed uniforms last year. This past spring, Virgin Atlantic, All Nippon Airways and Qantas Airways unveiled fresh, designer-made duds for their teams as well.

Now flight attendants, customer service agents and many of the more than 64,000 United Airlines employees worldwide have shed their old work outfits for a new wardrobe that “brings all of our employees together in a cohesive look and lets our customers know that we’re all on the same team,” said United spokesperson Charles Hobart.

United’s new flight attendant uniforms, for example, are built around a core wardrobe of black trousers, skirts, sweaters, vests and blazers with two rows of silver braid on the sleeves. There are also two styles of dresses, including a blue dress with a black stripe detail.

To come up with what United describes as its “more modern, sophisticated wardrobe,” the airline asked its employees to give on-line feedback, serve on uniform review teams, vote for their favorite designs and wear-test a variety of garments “They told us that comfort, functionality and durability were elements of a uniform that were important to them, as well as something that looked good,” said Hobart.

“If United really did design these uniforms based on employee input for comfort and durability, I applaud them,” said Tiffany Hawk, a former flight attendant and author of “Love Me Anyway”, a novel about life at United Airlines. “Satisfying your employees should be far more important than satisfying fashion critics. Flight attendants work five or six legs a day, 20 days a month, so easy maintenance and durability is key.”

Fashion-wise, though, reaction to the new uniforms is decidedly ‘meh.’

“The overall look screams of function and comfort and not style. They seemed to have missed an opportunity to have made a more fashionable and current statement,” said Karen Giberson, president of New York-based Accessories Council.

“The new uniform looks depressingly like the old uniform and is not flattering at all. I’m deeply disappointed” said Cliff Muskiet, a KLM purser and curator of Uniformfreak.com, an on-line museum of flight-attendant uniforms. “After the merger with Continental, United had the chance to come up with a great new uniform, but they didn’t.”

(My story about new uniforms for United Airlines employees first appeared on NBC News.com Travel)

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.


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