To say that air travel has come a long way since 1930, when the first stewardesses of Boeing Air Transport lined-up for inspection, would be a gross understatement. To say that air travel has changed in the past decade or two would also be understating it somewhat. The truth of the matter is that air travel is constantly evolving. Whether it is all good, or progressive, is a completely different subject for discussion. These days it is barely possible to keep up with the changing way we fly through the skies.
We now have double decker jets capable of carrying six hundred or more people in one aircraft. If the hype is to be believed, before long we will once again be hurtling around the globe, on the edge of the earth’s atmosphere, at supersonic speeds. Not to mention space tourism, and the possibility of air travel taking us into another galaxy (well, perhaps not quite that far, yet). Let’s be honest though, with the exception of the space tourism, Etihad’s one-bedroom on-board ‘Residence’, and Virgin Atlantic generally (we’ll come to Richard Branson later), how often to do you hear something about air travel these days that’s fabulous, fashionable or glamorous?!
The introduction of new routes is not really aviation news anymore. The unveiling of a massive new terminal may just about make the front page of the air travel press. Even many of today’s premium cabins just contain bigger seats, offer better food and are presided over by more experienced and patient crew. It really is a sorry state of affairs when an airline issues a global press release about a new amenity kit! All of this comes down to one thing: Sadly, there is simply very little glamour in our skies today. But this wasn’t always the case.
Security measures have obviously changed the way we fly but these are unavoidable. Tedious travel restrictions don’t exactly elevate the passenger experience. Moving through a humungous airport terminal, which handles tens of millions of passengers per year, is like being processed through an aviation factory and really no fun at all.
So today, when our carry-on bags are stuffed with in-flight survival necessities, like eye masks, noise-cancelling headsets and Valium (to numb the entire experience), it’s hard to imagine the glory days of aviation, back when air travel was glamorous and elite, and flight attendant style went far beyond the standard issue uniforms of today. But at aviation’s most glamorous height, flying was a special occasion that necessitated passengers dress to impress. Full meals were served with real silverware (even in economy), and flight attendants were expected to fulfil certain physical and beauty criteria in order to walk the aisles in the sky.
High fashion is not exactly the first thing that springs to mind when, as a passenger, you step on board a plane in 2017 and are greeted by cabin crew. On the contrary, the ultra-conservative two-piece suits most flight attendants wear are downright dull and dreary. But for every dowdy uniform you see on-board today’s airlines, there’s an incredibly rich history of stylish designer airline threads, that stretches back to the golden age of aviation. At one point, many top couture houses counted an airline amongst their clients. Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Emilio Pucci, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino all designed bespoke flight attendant uniforms, back in the day.
In 1930, after convincing Boeing Air Transport (now United) that the presence of on-board nurses would help passengers overcome their fear of flying, Ellen Church became the very first airline “stewardess”. Seven other ladies soon joined Church’s team, but since they had to be registered nurses, their uniforms were basically nurse’s attire, made of dark green wool, with matching green and grey wool capes, complete with caps.
Since then, when efficient, caped nurses became the first stewardesses, it’s been a tradition for flight attendants to look good while ensuring that passengers are comfortable and safe, and for the next decade or so, all stewardess uniforms looked alike. Basically, the only colours used were navy blue, dark green and brown for winter uniforms, and light blue, light green and beige for summer uniforms. All very conservative.
WWII saw the emergence of slightly more feminine, less conservative uniforms, not least because there were widespread crackdowns on the use of fabric for non-military purposes. As soon as WWII was over, the airline industry exploded with the introduction of the jumbo jet. Commercial airlines could hold more passengers, which meant that prices became more accessible for the average person. All of a sudden, anyone on a middle-class salary could afford air travel, which is something that had never been so available before. This saw the role of the stewardess develop, and soon they became associated with jet-setting and a free-spirited cosmopolitan lifestyle.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, when commercial flight really began to take off and fast became a booming business, more airlines launched and suddenly inter-airline competition intensified. This caused airlines to explore how they differentiate themselves. Before long they began to turn to fashion designers and ad agencies to cultivate a sexier image for their flight attendants, and they all wanted the prestige of a big-name designer attached to their brand. For the fashion house, airlines promised large-scale ad campaigns that were almost certain to get their designs noticed, and attract a large amount of publicity to the designer and the label, so it was a win-win for everyone.
In the mid-60s – when the Space Race coincided with the rise of air travel – Braniff International Airways capitalised on the excitement of the moment by hiring advertising exec Mary Wells Lawrence to mastermind the airline’s brand identity. Lawrence in turn hired designer Alexander Girard to work on the ad campaign, and together they brought on-board the Florentine fashion designer Emilio Pucci, synonymous with geometric prints in a kaleidoscope of colours.
Pucci essentially turned aviation marketing on its head overnight. Whether this was intentional or not we will never know. But his psychedelic flight attendant outfit – known as the “Supersonic Derby” – was an aviation show-stopper. Comprising a geometric printed nylon dress with matching tights and a bowler hat, the uniforms were a theatrical take on Italian high fashion meets intergalactic travel.
Pucci even designed an astronaut-inspired glass helmet called a “rain dome”, to protect stewardesses’ hairdos on the journey from the hotel via the terminal to the plane. Sadly, the impractical glass helmets only lasted a month, since there was nowhere to put them in-flight, but the fact that they were even produced, and worn for a time, says a great deal about the glamour and excitement associated with the aviation industry in the 1960s.
There was even a somewhat titillating marketing campaign for Braniff, called the “Air Strip”, featured a Pucci-designed uniform with several layers that could be removed inflight. The TV commercial even went so far as to depict a stewardess performing an airborne striptease.
Of course, once Braniff turned the stewardess into a fragrantly sexual icon, other airlines soon followed. This culminated in Southwest Airlines throwing caution to the wind with its 1973 stewardess attire, which included thigh-high laced-up kinky boots and hot pants. Perhaps this was a step too far!
Thanks to the revolutionary fashion of Dior and the popularity of Chanel, the two-piece suit became the basis of almost every flight attendant uniform in the ‘70s and ‘80s. All that really changed in these two decades were the length of the hemlines, the width of jacket lapels and the size of the padded shoulders. Conservatism was back in the skies, and until very recently, uniforms were uninteresting.
The noticeable lack of glamour in our skies was remedied only relatively recently by the grande dame of British high fashion, Vivienne Westwood, whose punk attitude is more alive now than in the movement’s Seventies heyday. Westwood designed cutting-edge new uniforms to mark the 30th anniversary of Virgin Atlantic – incorporating her well-tailored, figure-hugging signatures – which are now worn by over 7,500 members of staff, including cabin crew, pilots and ground staff.
The pairing of Westwood and Branson came as a surprise to many, considering the designer’s outspoken views on sustainability and unnecessary waste. However, “sustainability” is the watchword when it comes to Westwood’s 22-piece collection for Virgin, which includes the use of a polyester yarn made from recycled plastic bottles, a nano finish to help retain colour and extend garment life, and bags for ground staff that came about as a result of a United Nations collaboration with the Ethical Fashion Initiative in Nairobi. Yet the ‘40s-inspired uniforms for Virgin’s high-flying crew don’t sacrifice beautiful design and strong tailoring. On the contrary, standouts include a bright red jacket – inspired by the Bettina jacket Westwood designed in the early ’90s – paired with a matching red pencil skirt and red shoes with an hourglass heel (a Westwood signature). Meanwhile the guys are sporting sharp, three-piece burgundy wool suits inspired by Savile Row tailoring.
Let’s hope that Westwood’s collection for Virgin has kick-started the reintroduction of some glamour into our skies. Like the return of supersonic air travel, and rocket-powered craft taking us into space for a weekend jaunt, we can but dream.