While the airline may have first took to the skies on October 7, 1919, the airline didn’t actually employ its first onboard steward, Theo Boyeng until 1934. Boyeng had experience in the international hotel world, and later in shipping before becoming the first of three ‘cabin attendants’ to be employed at KLM, alongside four stewardesses in 1935.
One of the first female KLM cabin crew, was Nel de Vrieze. She was interviewed in the October 1959 edition of the airlines internal magazine the ‘Wolkenridder’, about her work at KLM. “If I ever thought that I would be the only air hostess, then I would have been in for a surprise,” she said. “No fewer than 300 people were invited to apply. Following the first selection, there were twenty candidates left. During a flight in a Fokker, we were tested for our ability to respond to different situations. Later, on the ground, we were subject to another psychological test.”
Little is known about the first two women’s uniforms, but we know they were black, like the men’s. The lapel of the double-breasted jacket bore the words ‘Air Hostess’. The jacket was worn over a plain white blouse, accessorised with a small tie and a beret to top it off.
It is also unknown who designed these uniforms. The exquisite craftsmanship means they were probably made by Dutch tailors from Amsterdam, who cut the uniforms to fit each stewardess perfectly.
Around 1937 the female uniform was altered for something resembling a business suit with slight adjustments. The jacket was no longer double-breasted but had a single button. The lapel still bore the words ‘Air Hostess’ and the beret was replaced by a small hat.
After the war, from 1948, flight attendants wore a grey-blue uniform with a matching cap, which was later replaced by a small hat. The ‘wings’ badge appeared for the first time and the titles “Stewardess” and “Air Hostess” were removed.
The pale blue brand hue was quickly established and as brand ambassadors, flight attendants were dressed in structured blazers, smart skirts and dynamic, angular pill box hats. The cabin crew presented an image of glamorous travel and quality service for the most stylish of passengers.
The Amsterdam fashion house Gerzon designed the uniform that stewardesses wore from 1957. This three-garment uniform was rather basic and conservative: a pencil skirt, jacket and small hat.
In 1962, a second hat was added, which was nicknamed “het kaasbolletje” – the cheese ball. This uniform was also dark blue and was worn over a white blouse with white gloves. The uniform also included a pale-blue-and-beige checked summer dress, designed for the tropics. The uniforms were hand-made by specialised tailors.
It wasn’t just uniform standards that were strictly monitored during this period but also the hairstyles and KLM stewardesses were allowed to choose from just six hairdo’s in the sixties.
In 1967 KLM’s uniform was part of a broader revamp, aptly named “New Look”, which also included tableware, meals and inflight service. The uniform was grey-blue and was the last in which dark blue was the dominant colour.
One striking feature was the off-white blouse, with a round collar instead of the usual upright one. The blouse had spectacular sun-burst stitching emanating from the collar. The jacket, with its three buttons, was also more closely fitted and the skirt was shorter. When serving dinner, the stewardesses wore special pinafores called “kazaks”, which were available in different colours. It is unknown who designed the New Look uniform.
The 1970s saw the introduction of the sky blue the airline still wears today. The uniform, introduced in 1971, was created by a group of designers at the Fashion Academy in Arnhem, who were connected to the Konersmann company in Amsterdam.
Stewardesses were given more choices in those days: a sleeveless dress or pinafore with buttons. The uniform also included a jacket, blouse, serving dress, overcoat and a new model hat. This “Feel Sure” range was made of Trevira 2000, which was one of the popular, easy-to-clean, synthetic materials of the era. You could wash and hang-dry it. No ironing required. Uniform design was now gradually shifting from made-to-measure to off-the-peg.
While quite a number of airlines took 1960s fashion on board, including miniskirts and hot pants, KLM maintained strict uniform and hairstyle regulations. Skirts were to be worn to the knee and not above. The bright-yellow scarf added a gorgeous accent to the KLM-blue uniform.
Four years later, it was time for another change. This was the first time a designer’s name was attached to the uniform. The designer was Wim van Hoek.
Although brown made an appearance in the KLM uniform, KLM blue remained the dominant colour. The uniform consisted of 13 pieces, was classical in style and included a medium-length skirt with four pleats at the front. The blouse was white with a pattern of dots and birds in brown and blue. A collarless jacket was worn over the blouse with a scarf in the same print as the blouse. Topping it all was a beret nicknamed “the egg cup”.
The summer uniform comprised a brown, cotton skirt with a pattern of blue birds. This garment wasn’t popular with crew, many of whom felt the skirt was inelegant. The wing badge on this uniform also had stripes, indicating the crew member’s rank.
On 28 March 1982, a new uniform was introduced, designed by the House of Nina Ricci in France. This uniform reflected the trends of the 1980s with its wide, padded shoulders and colourful accents in the scarf. The skirt had a long slit at the front and back. The light-blue blouse, which had the KLM logo woven into the fabric, was available with long and short sleeves, and with a round or raised collar. The ranking stripes were subtly incorporated into the sleeve. This uniform also had a hat, though crew were no longer obliged to wear it. Consequently, very few did.
Because the Nina Ricci uniform was popular, KLM decided not to have a new uniform designed, but to commission an update of the 1982 uniform.
Cabin attendants now had a choice of two skirts; one flared, the other straight. One striking item was the uniform jacket, which had a round collar and no lapels. The broad, padded shoulders ensured a sharp, angular silhouette. The ranking stripes were visible around the cuff of the sleeve, trimmed with a silver band, as they are today.
This was also the first uniform that did not include a hat. What it did include was a voluminous winter coat, nicknamed the “Bea coat” after Queen Beatrix, who wore similar garments to public engagements.
Cabin attendants were free to knot their scarf any way they pleased. This freedom of choice added an elegant personal touch to the uniform. The Nina Ricci design was worn from 1990 to 2010, making it the longest running uniform in KLM history.
In 2010, the Dutch couturier Mart Visser took over from Nina Ricci. He added an orange touch to the uniform, symbolising KLM’s Dutch roots. There is orange in the trimming of the jacket, in the extra stripe on the senior purser’s sleeve, and in the colour accent on the scarf.
The uniform consists of a jacket, two different skirts, a waistcoat and trousers. The latter is unique, as this is the first KLM uniform with trousers for female staff. The current uniform is known for its feminine, elegant lines and modern look. Below you see me in the current uniform, in both the pants and the pencil skirt.
Visser designed a capsule wardrobe of 11 items, including jacket, trousers, two styles of skirt (A-line or pencil), a white blouse, a shawl which can be worn nine different ways and a scarf. The new outfit uses his fondness for accentuating the body and has ‘a bit of sexiness thrown in’.
The uniforms had to be comfortable and fit sizes 32 to 52, as well as being suitable for all seasons. Extensive wearability and comfort trials were carried out with crew feedback paramount to the final designs. Although he was largely given a free rein, there were some stipulations and one of these was that Visser used the same KLM trademark blue material.
The new designs took to the air for the first time on March 29, 2010 and since then, the classy and sophisticated royal blue outfit has been making an impression everywhere it goes.
Nina Ricci’s uniform does however continue to fly today as the textile from the discarded uniforms has been woven into the carpets used in the cabins of KLM’s new aircraft.
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