For more than 85 years, the safety and service professional — variably called stewardess, hostess, and flight attendant — has been dressed in outfits designed to signify a distinct role in the workplace, project the identity of the airline, and reflect the popular fashions of the era.
As 30-year veteran SFO Assistant Museum Director John Hill shared with me, it all began with Ellen Church, a registered nurse and licensed pilot from Cresco, Iowa. Church dreamt of flying passenger planes, but due to the chauvinism of the 1930s, most airlines didn’t trust women in the cockpit. The first female commercial airline pilot in the United States was Helen Richey. Richey was hired by Central Airlines in 1934 but resigned 10 months later when the all-male pilots' union refused to accept her. Years later, out of piloting work and nearly penniless, Richey committed suicide. Another American woman wouldn’t be permitted to pilot a commercial plane until 1973, so Church and her colleagues made themselves useful in the meantime hauling luggage and serving lunches. But what to wear?
Taking a page from Florence Nightingale, the first uniform created for United Airlines by an in-house, unknown designer featured a militaristic green cape, double-breasted jacket, and wool calf-length skirt. Women wore this conservative garb from 1930-1932 as they performed their in-flight duties. It was all pillbox hats and square shoulders until 1938 when Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) chief hostess, Gladys Entrekin designed a more figure flattering blue outfit. Pin-up artist George Petty sketched a woman wearing the design and it was forevermore known as the "Petty Girl" uniform. Nothing says female empowerment like petty girl...
During WWII, all the extra fabric was going to make military uniforms for men serving overseas. The shortage forced airline uniform designers to innovate, taking out the pleats and heavy materials traditionally used in women’s wear in favor of slimmer silhouettes. The result was a tighter-fighting garment that left (relatively) less to the imagination. At the time, airlines imposed various sexist standards on their female staff members. Only single stewardesses between the ages of 20-25, weighing between 110-118 pounds, standing between 5’ and 5’ 4" feet in height, and bearing no children could work in the skies. Although a legally sanctioned male fantasy, professionally it made no sense. Tight girdles restricted mobility, as women busted ass lifting luggage and serving food. Turnover rates were astronomical as conventionally attractive women with few long-term career options met men in-flight and married off on the job.
Finally in 1944, Hollywood fashion designer Howard Greer consulted the working women to create an imperfect, but more utilitarian uniform. He devised the "blouslip," a combined undergarment in rayon and satin that did not need constant tucking in. A discrete triangular jacket flap could be unbuttoned to cover the TWA lettering, allowing the hostess to smoke or enjoy a cocktail while off duty without disgracing the reputation of the airline.
As air travel became faster, safer, and less expensive, a jet set emerged. The high-flying life of the airline stewardess came to symbolize the worldly sophistication and glamour of the modern woman. Famous designers soon got in the game, setting new standards for airline chic. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s official designer, Oleg Cassini, designed two fitted seasonal TWA uniforms in 1955. Best known for his work dressing Marilyn Monroe, Academy Award winner William Travilla devised a synthetic blend, summer seasonal ensemble for United Airlines in a soft "Blue Frost" color.
But it wasn’t until Christian Dior brought haute couture to Air France in 1962, that in-flight fashion really took off. The House of Dior designed an outfit that was as functional as it was sophisticated, reflecting the evolving position of women in the workplace. Inspired Beverly Hills designer Don Loper created a uniform with sharp angles and slanted pocket flaps to reflect the aerodynamic mood of the times. A woman with her hands pinned to her sides flying through space like a rocket in Loper’s pencil skirt and propeller fin-like hat is the initial image that comes to mind.
The first real pop of color appeared on Continental Airlines. Giddy passengers had the option to imbibe at an onboard Pink Cloud Buffet Bar. Naturally, the stewardesses needed to match, so a light pink summer uniform was commissioned. Actress Audrey Meadows who was married to the Chairman of Continental at the time, suggested all the women receive a matching pearl necklace as a training graduation gift. A white "sugar scoop" hat completed the look.
Once the color door was opened, all bets were off. Brilliant advertising executive Mary Wells Lawrence masterminded Braniff International Airways’ "The End of the Plain Plane" campaign after a harrowing trip through several stark Braniff airline terminals. As Wells describes in her autobiography, A Big Life in Advertising, "I saw a jail, the army, a prison camp, a ghastly desert, and a lot of gray people. I’m having a nightmare, I thought, but it was just the terminal. Airlines had developed out of the military, and modern marketing hadn’t discovered them yet." Wells decided Braniff airlines would distinguish itself with color. Under her direction, seven solid colors were painted on Braniff planes and Italian designer Emilio Pucci was hired to design the uniforms. By the mid 1960s the sexual revolution was in full swing and hemlines crept ever higher up the thigh. Drugs were changing hearts, minds, and fashion tastes prompting LSD-inspired psychedelic prints. Pucci capitalized on this wild and crazy time with his space-age 1965 Gemini IV collection for Braniff.
Pucci and Wells noted that all Braniff routes took people from cold locations to hot destinations. In this spirit, Pucci designed "the airstrip" a multi-layer uniform air hostesses could take off one piece at a time as the temperature rose in-flight. Girdles and gloves were cast aside in favor of drip-dry, easy care garments for the flight attendant’s on-the-go lifestyle. In what would become the first of many exciting airline uniforms, Pucci introduced the 1966 Supersonic Derby outfit: A harlequin-print nylon jersey uniform covered in Central American art motifs, green boots, and topped with a bowler hat.
Oscar-winning Parisian Costumer Jean Louis followed suit with a popular A-line dress for United airlines. Flight attendants could choose between colors (Hawaiian Sunset and Maliblue with a Miami Sands stripe) and hemlines (at the knee or three inches above). The outfit was worn from 1968-1970 with a fashionable hat.
Pan Am didn’t catch up until 1971 with its first above-the-knee hemlines and color choices of Superjet Blue or Galaxy Gold by designer Frank Smith. After several civil rights lawsuits in the late 60s, it became illegal for airline employers to discriminate on the basis of age, sex, or race. Valentino designed for the times with a pants suit for men and a longer-length plumb dress suit for women to accommodate the more conservative tastes of older employees.
The SFO Fashion in Flight exhibit traces the changing trends of flight attendant fashion through the boxy powersuits of the 1980s through the conservative Ralph Lauren and Ralph Lauren copycat uniforms of the 1990s to the British punk rock (Austin Powers?) Vivienne Westwood design on Virgin Atlantic Airways today.
Many of the uniforms on display were once worn by the retired airline staff who now run the museum. They are eager to share their firsthand experiences working as flight attendants during the heyday of in-flight fashion. If you tire of staring off into the void at the San Francisco International airport or live in the Bay Area and feel up for a fashion adventure, the SFO museum Fashion in Flight exhibit is a free, fascinating journey back in time.