History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

by AOL Travel Staff Subscribe to AOL Travel Staff's posts Posted Nov 20th 2009 12:19 PM



History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

Flight attendants are the most important point of contact between an airline and its passengers. As the "face" of an airline, their appearance and behavior during flights have a strong influence over guest satisfaction and, consequently, loyalty.

It should come as no surprise then that a great deal of thought has been given to flight attendant attire over the decades. The most recent move in the world of airborne fashion was made by United Airlines when they announced in November that they had hired world-famous designer, Cynthia Rowley, to create stylish new uniforms for all employees (look for them in 2011).

This move is a world-away from the first "stewardess" uniforms of the 1920s, which, as you'll see, were more functional than fashionable. Here, we examine the evolution of sky-borne style from stodgy to sexy to sophisticated and look at the historical context in which each uniform was designed. Although both men and women both play a major role in airline stewardship, this gallery focuses primarily on the outfits worn by women as these are the uniforms that have changed the most drastically over time.

History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

The outfit: The uniform worn by the first female "stewardess" ever looks like it was designed more for a man than a woman. The long, buttoned-up jacket is prim and proper with a decidedly un-feminine shape and a notched lapel.

The era: The first commercial airlines were dedicated almost entirely to the transport of mail. If you were brave enough to take to the skies, you could pay a handsome sum of money to "hitch" a ride on a plane in the mail compartment, but "in-flight service" was practically unheard of and the role of "steward" was held solely by men. Things began to change rapidly, however, in the '20s when Swiss Air not only hired the first female "stewardess"-pictured here at the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin-but began offering a more comfortable flight experience, complete with in-flight beverage service.

History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

The outfit: Ellen Church, the first American flight attendant, is pictured on the right wearing the outfit from that decade-a boxy, high-collared, less feminine version of the 1940s uniform sported by the woman standing next to her.

The era: Female flight attendants didn't take to the skies en masse until the 1930s. An American woman named Ellen Church led the charge when she left her job as a registered nurse and applied for a job at Boeing. Initially seeking work as a pilot, she was instead directed to a role as a stewardess. Church made her first flight from San Francisco to Chicago on May 15, 1930. William Patterson, then President of United Airlines, was inspired by what he saw as a potential marketing opportunity. Following Church's hire, he directed United to hire eight more women (all former nurses) to work as flight attendants.

History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

The outfit: Although still somewhat militant in appearance, skirt suits with matching caps are now designed to be more streamlined and fitted, playing up the femininity of female attendants.

The era: It was in the 1940s that the notion of "flight attendants" as icons of glamour and femininity really began to catch on. In-flight service was also becoming more and more important-passengers could now look forward to meals and beverages served by friendly, smiling "stewardesses" on flights. The women who held these roles were expected to be charming, attractive, and competent.

History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

The outfit: The '50s didn't see a drastic change in airline attendant uniforms compared to the '40s-jackets still sport a streamlined silhouette designed to follow the female form. Pencil skirts are tight enough to be attractive, loose enough to be comfortable. The look is unfussy, yet sophisticated, and still slightly militant.

The era: The era of glamour in air travel was in full swing by the '50s and jobs as flight attendants were highly sought after by young women drawn to idea of traveling the world. Applicants were required to be young, white, attractive, and unmarried. The training was rigorous, but attendants were told to make the work appear effortless. Eventually, these rules became frustrating to attendants who felt that much of their work, including enforcing safety standards and handling unruly passengers, was not being properly recognized. It was this frustration that led many attendants to unionize in the '50s and demand higher wages and respect for their trade.

History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

The outfit: For the first time, flight attendants lose the jacket. The new look, which is subtly sexier, features tailored, pencil skirts with jaunty, matching caps and crisp, v-neck blouses. The TWA stewardess, pictured here, is monitoring a pretend race between American athlete Jesse Owens and TWA agent John Joe Barry.

The era: The '60s marked the decade of jumbo jets and more stylish attire for flight attendants. Spacious lounges were introduced on planes and the menu of beverages and meals expanded. The importance placed on in-flight service increased and stewardesses were expected to be more customer-oriented than ever. At the same time, the arrival of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 meant that the strict rules surrounding gender, age, weight, and marital status were starting to be questioned.

History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

The outfit: Flight attendants on Southwest look like they're ready for the disco in micro-shorts, low-slung belts, slinky scarves, and go-go boots.

The era: The '70s marked a turning point for female flight attendants. Uniforms, such as those featured here from Southwest Airlines, became uber-sexy as air companies boldly capitalized on the sex appeal of stewardesses. Southwest's motto at the time? "Sex sells seats." One airline-Braniff International-even required stewardess to perform a show called "The Air Strip" during international flights. During the show they peeled off layer after layer of clothing until the final outfit, a skimpy blue number, was revealed. On Southwest flights, attendants sported hot pants and kinky leather boots while serving drinks with names like "Passion Punch" and "Love Potion." The provocative fashions didn't last long. Toward the end of the '70s flight attendants started taking advantage of the new laws prohibiting sex discrimination. Not surprisingly, they were one of the first groups of professional women to raise the issue of sexual harassment.

History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

The outfit: The '80s and '90s saw a return to the prim and proper uniform of the '50s and '60s. Attendants go back to the skirt suit, albeit one with an open jacket. Attendants look comfortable, professional, and in-control.

The era: The sexual slogans and fashions of the '70s drew sharp criticism from flight attendants and female rights groups. In response, the fashion pendulum swung heavily in the '80s and '90s. Uniforms veered back toward classic cuts and dark colors and pants suits became an option. At the same time, the word "stewardess" went out of style and flight attendants were finally recognized as professionals in their trade deserving of respect and fair treatment.

History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

The outfit: The emphasis on fashion returns as airlines adopt attire inspired by the destination out of which the airline is based. Styles are simple, elegant, and attractive.

The era: The old glamour associated with flight attendants has long since faded, but their role remains crucial to air travel. These days, women and men are recognized as experts in safety and passenger management, enjoy health benefits, an exceptional amount of time off (up to three months per year, depending on the airline), and free or reduced travel for themselves and family members. The stodgy colors and rigid lines of the uniforms of the last two decades have been replaced with outfits that are designed to be attractive and comfortable.

History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

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History of Flight Attendant Uniforms

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If fashion and glamor have been absent from the flight attendant profession then this woman has brought all that back. She appears professional, beautiful, sophisticated, and colorful. This dress highlights many qualities of the feminine perspective.

October 17 2011 at 10:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This decade of flight attendants heralded an age where women really appeared as professionals. This woman has color and style in her uniform. very sophisticated. They actually looked like flight attendants rather than stewards.

October 17 2011 at 10:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think this is the biggest jump in style that a decade has seen. These women are just off the charts with these uniforms. Very provocative and they appear as if they are going to the club rather than working on a plane.

October 17 2011 at 10:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

These flight attendants seem to be more comfortable because they have less material in their uniform. The Woman has a v-neck shirt that seems to show off her style and femininity. The men seem to be able to move around and function more efficiently.

October 17 2011 at 10:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

These 1950's style were loose fitting but slightly more appealing.

October 17 2011 at 10:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The attendant in this picture is sporting more of a feminine look. You can really tell that this uniform is for a woman however the style seems to be more militaristic in nature.

October 17 2011 at 10:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

These women sporting the "stewardess" and nurse wear appears to be going to church rather than work. This look was extremely over dressed not to mention bulky and uncomfortable.

October 17 2011 at 10:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This uniform seems to be fitted more for a man. This depiction is so much more masculine than feminine.

October 17 2011 at 10:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Flight attendants are the front line of service for the image of airlines. These early depictions of the 1920's airlines gives us a view of the conservative and efficient trend. I like these styles as they indicated a time where image represented something.

October 17 2011 at 10:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The flight attendant is the front-line of the image of the airline. They are representative of that airlines. These earlier depiction of the 1920's uniform are fashionable and efficient. The style of these uniforms were conservative and dated for this era.

October 17 2011 at 10:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply