Flight Attendant Uniforms Through The Years Have A More Surprising History Than You Probably Realize
If you've ever been on a flight, then you've definitely come across a flight attendant or two, in all their pristine-blazer and perfectly-hairsprayed-bun glory. But those sharp suits they wear haven't always been the norm, and the history of stewardess uniforms is a long and winding one. Just like how once they used to serve meals on fine china and cut charcuterie for cigar smoking passengers, their uniforms have changed just as much as the times.
Not only have they changed across the decades but also across campaigns, where marketing themes thought of new ways to lure businessmen away from train travel and onto their window-seat flights. And a constant carrot at the end of the stick, let's call it, was the women on board. Because of that, hostess uniforms often times mirrored not only the decades they've been worn, but the image and attitude towards women in that particular time.
From the 1930's trend of hiring levelheaded small town girls to advertising in the '50s that featured potential wives-to-be teaching you how to buckle your seat, to the uniforms getting sexier in the '70s with micro minis and go-go boots, it's been a wild ride for flight attendants. Ahead is the history of stewardess uniforms — the good, the bad, and the absolute cringey.
1. Nurse Uniforms In The Early 1930s
Flying was seen as an adventure in and of itself back in the 1930s — when a flight from L.A. to New York took 28 hours, you didn't buy a boarding pass on a whim. Not many people took to the skies for a quick weekend jaunt, but rather they did it when it was absolutely necessary — and even then, the planes only held 10 passengers at a time. In order to make the public feel safer about boarding, airlines came up with the bright marketing ploy to hire in-air nurses, or as we call them today, flight attendants
This was a big deal for women who wanted to own their own bank accounts, especially since the only jobs available to them in newspaper clippings were for schoolhouse teachers, nurses, or secretaries. And here was an opening that would not only give them a paycheck, but allowed them to leave their small towns and jet-set around the world. But unlike the pretty, cut-out-doll stereotypes of flight attendants we've grown to expect, these women were meant to look almost military-like and blend in with the crew. They reflected a respectable image of working women during a time when many people thought that their daughters working was unsavory — which was partly why they wanted to have nurses specifically on the transcontinental flights.
"Nurses conjured an image of hard work, care taking, and discipline," Victoria Vantoch, author of The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon, wrote in her book. And rather than choosing flirty type of girls who would cater to their male passengers (more on that later), airlines preferred young women from small towns rather than cosmopolitan girls. "The small-town recruiters were supposedly more likely to have a 'good moral standing,'" Vantoch explained. To make this intention crystal clear, Boeing district manager, Steve Stimpson, even sent a memo saying that he wouldn't consider hiring "the flapper type of girl, but nurses with horse sense who had seen enough men to not be inclined to chase them around the block at every opportunity."
Still worried about the respectability of the position, the VP crumpled the memo and insisted they needed young men in the role, but then the assistant to the President pointed out something his wife and daughters mentioned — many people would get air sick while on the long flight, and they wouldn't want a man passing them the barf bag. His daughter, Patricia, stressed, "My mother and I didn't want young boys holding our hair when we got sick — no customer wanted that — so we told my dad to hire women instead." And with women taking over cabins, they needed a uniform to match that no-nonsense role.
2. Updated Nurse Uniforms In The Late 1930s
Seeing how stewardesses were just the Red Cross with wings, their uniforms naturally resembled the nurse position they were filling. The OG attendants wore two different uniforms: The first was a "field uniform" that was worn outside the plane as the women welcomed fliers aboard, which included a green wool cape, heavy wool skirt with a six button blazer, and a “shower cap” of an infantry nurse. Once inside, they would change into their on-board uniform, which was a simple gray smock with the addition of a nurse hat. Maybe it wasn't glamorous, but it fit the role.
The masculine tailored suits of the "sky nurses" only turned more militant as the '30s progressed. "Armed conflicts in Europe and Asia, that would evolve into WWII, began in the mid- to late 1930s, and militarism was in the air," John Hill, the curator of SFO Museum's exhibit "Fashion in Flight: A History of Airline Uniform Design," shares with Bustle. "The airlines saw this as a way for stewardesses to project authority and professionalism." If a tidy line of army-green women in capes were waving you onto the plane, you would definitely get the sense that they weren't there just to stir you martinis. But fast-forward to the next decade, and you'll see just how quickly that image changed.
3. The 'Wife In Training' Uniforms Of The 1950s
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.
4. The Flirty Hostess Uniforms Of The Eary 1960s
In the '60s, uniforms got interesting. Airlines have been recruiting haute couture designers like Emilio Pucci and Balenciaga to style their uniforms since the '40s, but this particular decade inspired the kind of looks that terminals have never seen before. "In the '60s, uniforms became wilder and more playful mostly because society became wilder and more playful," Hill explains. "The airlines wanted to identify with many of the technological developments and social movements of the period, many of which became seen as touchstones of the jet age as reflected in catchphrases like 'jet set' and 'jet-setter.'"
The way their flight attendants looked walking through the airport was also and attempt to bring an extra kick to their marketing. The trouble was at that time there were so many different commercial flights to choose from — and all the airlines were basically offering the same things — that the only real way to differentiate themselves was through their attendants. And so they tried to create a whole experience through the way their stewardesses dressed. Part of that was shifting women away from the soon-to-be-wife persona and inching her towards a flirty hostess that would help you pass the time while on board.
5. The Even Flashier Uniforms Of The Late 1960s
Take Pucci's psychedelic outfit that he created for Braniff airlines, dubbed the Supersonic Derby outfit. The idea was that a Braniff flight was meant to be a party. It was all acid-trip colors, intergalactic bowler hats, and clingy tights. When asked about the inspiration behind the outlandish uniform, the advertising exec who hired him put it bluntly: "When a tired businessman gets on an airplane, we think he ought to be allowed to look at a pretty girl." But not only was she someone to look at while you got handed an Old Fashioned, the uniform itself brought a certain kind of personality to Braniff that would make businessmen choose to book that flight specifically. And in order to really cinch that decision, marketing execs took it one step further and thought of the "Air Strip," where the hostesses would peel out of their clothes throughout their flight, eventually down to their minis.
Another gimmick that a line spun together was the "Foreign Accent" flights by TWA Airlines, which was supposed to turn your transcontinental flight into a European layover. Trying to promote their new international line, each flight had a particular "accent," and the stewardesses were clad in paper costumes to match: French (gold mini cocktail dress,) Italian (Roman toga,) Old English (wench dress,) and Manhattan Penthouse (hostess pajamas.) Passengers didn't know what country they would be flying with until they got to their terminal, and the cocktails, beer, and food were also dished up according to the theme. "Passengers are greeted at the airport boarding lounges with Union Jacks and taped British music. Their stewardesses wear a be-ruffled, very short, serving-wench outfit made of paper," Flight International shared in 1968, talking about the "Old English" flight. "But the stewardesses are the ones who must make it all come true. The rule book is relaxed so that the girls can let themselves go." And as one passenger assured them, he had a "jolly good time."
The stewardess uniforms had an ulterior purpose to them, and TWA's ads helped to confirm that. "Spread out on the floor, these women looked ready to go out on dates — or stay home in bed. On these theme flights, stewardesses were outfitted in disposable paper uniforms, which ripped easily," Vantoch pointed out. Flirty, coy, and more than just a little bit playful, it was a new era for flight attendants.
6.The Super Sexy Uniforms Of The 1970s
In the 1970s, the theme of haute-couture designers outfitting fly girls stuck around, elevating this idea that airline girls clicked down the terminal in designer labels. "She was the ultimate consumer, who knew the latest Parisian fashion trends, wore designer uniforms, applied cosmetics expertly, and lived an enviable jet-setting lifestyle that brought her to five-star hotels in exotic cities around the world," Vantoch shared.
But rather than keeping the uniforms cheeky like they did the decade prior, the attires turned borderline crass.
"The fantasy image of flight attendants in the 1950s had been the fresh-faced girl next door — the kind you wanted to marry. Now the image shifted to the 'playmate in the sky,' available for sex," Cobble shared. The aim of the stewardess was to entertain and act as eye candy for the Don Drapers on board, who couldn't kill a few hours with just their newspapers. They wanted the added benefit of flirty cocktail waitresses to pass the time. Hot pants, thigh-high grazing minis, and vinyl go-go boots were often times seen as standard uniforms. Continental Airlines had ads where stewardesses promised they would "really move our tail for you," and Air Jamaica's stewardesses promised to "make you feel good all over." With such innuendo-heavy copy, it only made sense that the dresses would follow that same vibe.
7. The Business Attire Uniforms Of The 1980s & Today
In the '80s the position took a massive pivot from playboy bunny to safety professional, and so the uniform changed with the rebranding of the career description. The uniforms became androgynous, with smart looking pantsuits and blouses that took the emphasis off from gender.
Part of the drive to change the uniforms came from a push by the flight attendants themselves and their issues with being treated like trolley pushing sex-objects. Because of this, stewardesses and their unions fought to erase the "girlfriend in the skies" image, and from this confrontation came the de-sexualized and gender-neutral label "flight attendant."
Part of the shift in uniforms also had to do with the cost-efficient spin airlines went through. Whereas before plane travel was seen as an exciting luxury — which had everything from linen tablecloth dinners to piano lounges upstairs — now it was just seen as a way to get from Point A to Point B. Because of that, airlines started to focus on getting as many passengers on board to make the most amount of money on each flight. Gimmicky uniforms were no longer needed, because 1) they would eat into profits and 2) the glamour of boarding a plane was over. Airlines no longer had to lure passengers away from train travel or road trips — flying was no longer a novel idea.
"The attendant's work became a matter of dealing with increasing numbers of passengers and rushing to complete meal and drink service in crowded aircraft in reduced time. In Arlie Russell Hochschild's memorable description, 'The cruise ship had become a Greyhound bus,'" Fred Erisman, author of From Birdwomen to Skygirls: American Girls' Aviation Stories, pointed out. That's partly why the gimmicky uniforms disappeared — people didn't pick out their airlines on the criteria of stewardesses anymore. The times have changed, and the dress codes changed with them.
Nowadays the uniforms have stuck to that professional, gender neutral style more or less, with each airline including its own small tweaks and branding ploys. Even though the days of nurse caps and go-go boots are long gone, it's interesting to see how far we've come.