Fashion in Flight: The History of Flight Attendant Uniforms
“Nurse, companion, ticket puncher, baggage master, guide, waitress and little mothers of all the world.” That’s how the 1937 Woman’s Home Companion described flight attendants of the day, although the very first were “cabin boys,” the teenage sons of airline investors, who in turn, were replaced by “sky girls” brought on board to soothe the jangled nerves of passengers unaccustomed to traveling through the clouds. From nurse inspired, to military styled, to mini-skirted color block, cabin crew uniforms have represented not only image and branding but the evolving roles of women. Their changing looks have marked milestones like airline deregulation and patterns of social mobility. Fittingly, Fashion in Flight opens June 11, 2016 through the holidays at SFO’s International Terminal, parading over seventy airline uniform ensembles and accessories (yes, yellow go-go boots!) in their Main Hall and Aviation Library. Assistant Director of Aviation John Hill takes us on board.
Gwynned Vitello: No question, this is a fun and relatable story about fashion. How did the idea come about, and where did you start collecting images and pieces?
John Hill: In the early ’90s, SFO Museum began developing a permanent collection focused on commercial aviation. The airlines figure prominently, of course, and their material culture includes lots of textiles in the form of clothing. Women’s and men’s wear, flight crew, ground personnel, and even outdoor ramp gear are all represented. We often show uniforms within a larger context of airline history, but as we learned more about the uniforms themselves, we saw an interesting story emerge within the framework of the fashion industry and social behavior, and how so many well-known designers have been involved with their creation over the years. So, concentrating on the women’s wear part of the collection, we decided they should be presented and enjoyed more objectively. The uniforms are intrinsic to their airline identity, of course, but airline corporate history is a secondary thoughtline in this exhibition. By looking through more of a fashion lens, we may actually gain even more understanding of the airline industry as a by-product, and reveal more of how commercial aviation is connected to so many other fields.
What we see in this array spanning the last eighty-five years is the evolution of a truly unique type of attire that exists at the intersection of all the complex forces surrounding the recent phenomenon of aerial mass transit. In the field of clothing psychology, airline uniforms are off the chart as to how much they project and how much is projected on them. They are packed with purpose, meaning, function, status and more. And, it is fun to examine how they reflect, overlay and occasionally, buck the trends of fashion, social politics and popular culture.
(1971, Evan Picone for Pan-Am)
I imagine it will be grouped chronologically. Can you give a brief history of the trends? The first attendants didn’t wear nurse uniforms, did they?
The show runs chronologically overall, but with many overlaps, as uniform collections often lasted much longer than one season, and there are some groupings that belong together by association rather than by time sequence. Also, “in-house” uniforms that were more anonymously designed by manufacturers of career wear are interspersed with those by the known fashion houses as influences that are evident throughout.
Yes, the first flight attendants were all registered nurses, and their uniform alluded to that, but added certain flare, making them “sky nurses,” a term actually used for a brief period of time. From there, the styles went to more masculine and militaristic, tailored suit looks. After World War II, Dior’s “New Look” and other Parisian influences are seen, along with the entry of Hollywood costumers; but the corseted hourglass silhouette soon gave way to semi-fitted suits with higher waisted jackets to give more mobility for the increased demands of the job. This carried over into the Jet Age that literally blasted off in the early ’60s, and by the middle of the decade, the uniforms followed passenger numbers into the stratosphere. The space program, emulated by Pierre Cardin, Emilio Pucci and others, pushed it over the top with interstellar and kaleidoscopic colors. California carriers mixed outer space and psychedelic flower power in the early 1970s. The drip-dry double knit leisure suit era with mix-and-match collections brought variety and choices, and the pantsuit made the scene. Casual elegance and resort wear influences were seen, and scarves became a frequent accessory. Many airlines returned to traditional three-piece suits as the nostalgia movement took hold at the end of the 1970s and into the ’80s. This created a divergence where the conservative, corporate, navy blue look chosen by many carriers provides greater contrast for those airlines that continue pursuing some of the more expressive and higher fashion directions often seen today.
Describe more about when women got to “wear the pants,” and do you know if that was welcomed by passengers?
Pucci’s uniforms in the ’60s had pants elements, and André Courrèges’ 1973 UTA uniforms included bell bottoms, but the look went more mainstream by 1974 with mix and match collections by designers like Stan Herman and Edith Head at TWA, Pan Am and United. These included a choice of skirts and pants, which were phased in, so it was gradual, even if there was a passenger reaction, if any.
(1970, Japan Air Lines by Hanae Mori)
Was there a kind of hierarchy among the carriers, differences between first class and economy, between regional and international?
There were many distinctions made by airlines in a strategic effort to create an identity and position themselves in certain sectors of the market as first, business, and economy classes became a distinct business model, and uniforms were used to project such marketing campaigns. Certain combinations of the mix and match uniforms could be designated for different cabins, particularly for the lounges where a maxi-skirt could have an almost evening wear look. In general, to project a cosmopolitan look, international carriers tended to engage couture fashion houses more so than domestic and regional. Revenue trends could also dictate such decisions.
Which are your favorites, and do they remind you of a particular mood or moment?
There are too many to pick from. The Pucci designs for Braniff are pure theater, and I admire their singular command of attention in an industry clamoring for attention. Both Marc Bohan for Dior and Balenciaga Air France are very beautiful, and the classic Pan Am Don Loper originals trigger personal memories and associations with that airline and travels of my youth. Somehow I find them all great.
(1965, Braniff by Emilo Pucci)
People still tend to react with a little measure of awe and friendly recognition when they see a pilot or flight attendant in uniform. Why do you think that still causes heads to turn?
Seeing a stylishly dressed airline crew march purposefully across the terminal still triggers excitement for the promise of air travel on a personal level, and a vicarious twinge for the globetrotting lifestyle of the flight attendant seems to persist. Deep down we all crave mobility—speed and motion—and flying is the ultimate form. Flight attendants are the emissaries of that collective experience and we expect them to dress accordingly.
SFO’s Fashion in Flight is on view June 11, 2016 through January 8, 2017, in the Main Hall & Aviation Museum and Library in SFO’s International Terminal.
This interview is featured in the the July 2016 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine, on newsstands worldwide and in our webstore.