After WWII, the word "airport" became more commonplace in Americans' vocabulary thanks to the debut of the jumbo jet. Now that more seats were available, ticket prices became more affordable and anyone with a few extra vacation days could afford a round-trip ticket anywhere from Omaha to Hawaii. And as that accessibility grew, so did the role and image of the stewardess.
After the boys overseas came home and women retired their factory bandanas, there was a huge surge back to domesticity in the 1950s. Women went back to serving Sunday pot roast and doing the morning laundry, and that image carried over into the cockpit. Ads began to portray their attendants as doting housewives, doing everything from bringing you coffee to fluffing your pillows. "A high-flying expert at applying lipstick, warming baby bottles, and mixing a martini, the stewardess was popularly imagined as the quintessential wife to be," Vantoch explained.
And that image of availability was a major selling point at that time: Women had to be in their early twenties, single, and even signed a contract that promised they would quit once they got married. "Supervisors combed through wedding announcements looking for evidence of rule breaking. They discovered one stewardess was secretly married while she was on a cross country flight — when she landed in Denver, a supervisor met the flight and made sure she didn't catch the returning one back home," Gail Collins, author of When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women, wrote.
Another big non-negotiable was children. Airlines were positive that mothers wouldn't be able to deal with trans-continental work schedules, so women would hide the fact that they had baby pictures stowed away in their wallets. "One transgressing employee had kept her infant secret for three years. Upon discovery, the airline insisted that she either resign (in which case she could keep her child) or put her child in an orphanage," Dorothy Sue Cobble, author of The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America, wrote in her book.
But while this all might sound terribly old-school, there was an interesting asterisk attached to this quintessential '50s woman — the stewardess was curiously feminist for her time. Here was a woman that had one foot in domesticity, and the other in a high-flying career that took her thousands of miles away from the suburbs. During a time of June Cleavers, she was paving the way for the Single Girl. She was seen as wildly cosmopolitan with an exciting lifestyle, walking the streets in Tokyo one morning, only to try the amuse bouche in London the next. They were seen as glamour girls, and were treated like the crème de la crème. "These enchanting women cavorted with A-listers at parties hosted by the Guggenheims. They also made appearances on the national political scene. Forty stewardesses decked out in tailored silver-sequined mini dresses welcomed guests as the official presidential hostesses at Richard Nixon's inaugural ball," Vantoch shares.
But while they were enjoying jet-setting around the world, there was also the appeal of the businessmen packed into their aisle seats. And in order to catch their eye (and sell more tickets,) stewardesses had to look a certain way. And that's where the uniforms changed.