Ever since Henrich Kubis became the first ever Cabin Crew/Flight Attendant back in 1912, the uniforms that have adorned air crews have formed a massive part of the history of aviation and fashion as a whole.
Over the years there has been good uniforms and bad uniforms. But for all the bad there’s always the ones with a sharp, timeless style that wouldn’t look out of place on today’s catwalks – many of which have featured in our yearly ‘Style in the Aisles’ Top Ten Cabin Crew uniforms since 2014.
Here we take a glimpse at ten fascinating titbits from some of the best cabin crew uniforms.
The Earliest Uniforms Were Inspired By Nurses
Ellen Church became the world’s first female Flight Attendant when she took to the skies on May 15, 1930. Church had convinced Steve Simpson of Boeing Air Transport (later becoming United Airlines) that women could perform just as well as men, in the role of onboard stewards.
As a former nurse who had worked in a San Francisco hospital, Church believed that putting nurses onboard would significantly ease the publics fears of flying which, back in those days, was nowhere near as safe as it is today. The innovation was a success and airlines began to hire ‘stewardesses’ in their droves.
Simpson designed the very first outfit for the newly hired ‘Sky Girls’, ensuring that the uniform remained as close in appearance to a nurses as possible. In keeping with fashion at the time, a military aspect was also included to give the girls an added air of authority and confidence.
The new look – in a dark green wool, included a heavy cape over a high-collared dress shirt and long high-waisted A-line skirt, with inflight nurses cap to be worn.
There’s A Psychological Element To Uniforms
As mentioned, women were brought onboard in those early days predominantly to calm fearful flyers. Right from the beginning the psychological element and impact of crew uniforms was evident and it has continued right up to the present day.
During the war years, uniforms reflected the military styling of the times and added authority to the role with a stricter sense of professionalism.
Then came the advent of the ‘Jet-Set’ in the 1950’s. This was the first time airlines began to utilise its crews as the face of their business, to compete against its rivals and get bums on seats. How it’s staff looked now became even more important.
The 1960’s pushed this point home further, as airlines used the “sex sells” mantra, portraying their female flight attendants as objects of desire, as well as becoming cultural and fashion icons.
Today, many carriers still embrace the idea that passengers are subconsciously aware that Cabin Crew and Pilot uniforms are something special and that they subtly influence public opinion of the airline.
Indeed, what other uniforms make headlines when airlines team up with top fashion designers to create a new look? What other companies uniforms go viral on social media? What other uniforms turn heads, even to this day, in airports around the world?
But it is more than just a uniform. Air crew need apparel that passengers will respond to in the unlikely event of an emergency. Much like Ellen Church and those early FA uniforms, even to this day crew need a look that gives an air of authority.
The World’s Best Known Flight Attendant Uniform Has Remained Unchanged For Over 50 Years
The ‘Singapore Girl’ of Singapore Airlines, has to be the world’s most recognisable Flight Attendant.
So well known in fact that she was even immortalised in wax at Madame Tussauds in 1993, the first commercial figure to ever be displayed here.
The uniform, the ‘Sarong Kebaya’ was introduced in 1968. Designed by Haute Couturier Pierre Balmain, the look is stylish, elegant and instantly recognisable.
A stunning Asian batik print was chosen to reflect the identity and hospitality of Singapore Airlines’ crew, and the fabric design consists of brightly-coloured floral motifs and a colourful border.
Each look is tailor made to fit the specific crew member wearing it, the outfit even has built in safety features, in keeping with Balmain’s vision. The slit of the skirt allows crew to hold the two corners of fabric and tie them above the knee, making the skirt shorter and more practical.
There are four different colours for the sarong kebaya, each representing the role and rank of the crew member that wears it. The most recognisable is the blue, which remains the trademark Singapore Airlines look and is worn by flight stewards and stewardesses. While green is for leading stewards and stewardesses, red for chief stewards and stewardesses and purple for the flight’s Inflight Manager.
While the ‘Singapore Girl’ is the embodiment of of the successful marketing concept and one of the airline industry’s most instantly recognisable figures, the uniform has not been without its criticisms through the years. Many people have called the marketing concept sexist.
However, for a uniform that has stood the test of time for over four decades, the airline has no plans to change the concept or their traditional uniforms any time soon.
Many other airlines across the globe have utilised traditional dress for its uniforms such as Air India and its Salwar-Kameez, SriLankan Airlines and the ‘Osariya’, Malaysia Airlines and their own kebaya; there’s also Arab head dresses worn by Middle Eastern carriers such as Gulf Air or Emirates.
But none have been quite as iconic as Singapore Airlines.
“There’s No Place Like Home” Virgin’s Ruby Slippers
One airline does however have its own iconic accessory, Virgin Atlantic and its red shoes.
When John Rocha updated the airlines uniform in 1999 he decided to keep the ‘Virgin Red’ colouring for the jackets and skirts, but would do away with the carriers signature red heels.
These stand-out shoes were introduced by Arabella Pollen, a 23-year old fashion designer in 1984, when she created the fledgling airlines first look.
Thankfully, after many complaints by crew (and sexually frustrated business passengers) the iconic shoes returned in 2004 when Rocha was once again hired to vamp up the previous design in celebration of the carriers 20th anniversary.
In 2011 Virgin introduced three new fabulous styles to its red pumps. Affectionally known as “Dorothy” and “Dotty,” a nod to Dorothy’s red slippers from the Wizard of Oz’ (they even come in a yellow brick box), the shoes made their debut on Virgin Atlantic’s first flight of its new Airbus A330 from Manchester to Orlando, Florida, on April 4, 2011.
They’ve Been Known To Make Crew Sick
Flight Attendant apparel has hit the headlines over recent years, following numerous high-profile cases in the US where crew members have fallen ill after new uniforms were introduced.
To much fan-fare American, Delta and Alaska Airlines all unveiled their fabulous new looks, only to have them removed and subsequently redesigned. Rashes, blisters, vomiting, migraines, shortness of breath and even hair-loss have been reported by crew members.
Despite numerous investigations, no one knows why. Some crew members even started their own investigations to discover what chemicals were in their uniforms. Sadly this has proved incredibly difficult to ascertain.
“It’s unlikely that there’s one specific smoking gun type of a chemical that’s causing these issues, but it’s likely to be a unique combination,” said Irina Mordukhovich, a research associate at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Along with her colleague Eileen McNeely, the pair wrote a report in to the illness issues, who stated that working conditions could make them vulnerable to the chemicals found in their uniforms. Long periods wearing the apparel, sweating whilst wearing the uniform and working in the confines of an aircraft cabin with recycled air could all contribute to these issues.
Many of the crew members who have been impacted have subsequently filed lawsuits in an attempt to recoup some of the losses they have incurred following the time off work while being ill and to get their employers to recognise this significant issue.
The Paper Uniform
Today, sustainability and protecting the environment is one of the biggest battles that both the aviation and fashion industry is facing.
But as far back in the 1960’s, as air travel grew, cabin crew uniforms were changing dramatically. Airlines began to experiment with colour and fabrics and one such uniform was the epitome of experimental.
Worn by BOAC stewardesses on routes between New York and the Caribbean, the infamous flower power, psychedelic ‘Paper Dress’ was manufactured by Joseph Lore INC. New York.
The cream dress had a pattern of cerise and purple flowers with green leaves. It was worn with tan tights, green jewelled slippers, white gloves and a flower in the hair.
The dresses weren’t really made of paper instead a fire proof paper-like fabric. They were cut to length by the stewardesses to match their height, no higher than three inches above the knee and thrown away at the end of each flight.
While the dresses may have put BOAC in to the fashion limelight, they did not grace the aircraft aisles for long and were withdrawn after less than a year. Legend has it that some more high spirited male passengers, were tempted to take a cigarette lighter to the dress to see what would happen!
The Tiger King Cabin Crew
More akin to an outfit worn by Tiger King star Carole Baskin than a cabin crew member, American carrier National Airlines, became one of the first airlines in the world to utilise its crew to design its new uniforms.
A list of design features and suggested looks were formulated by the airlines crew and put forward to National management to include in the look. But this was also another interesting break from the norm at the time, when airlines would usually bring a famous fashion designer onboard to create their new looks.
Despite the look being put together by its crews, National Airlines once again capitalised on the sexual portrayal of its staff. This was the height of the jet age and a (synthetic) tiger skin topcoat uniform was the pièce de résistance of the uniform.
“Uniforms that purr” was the tag-line and with a full-notched collar and six double rows of buttons, there was even a tiger skin hat to match.
Through the years some airline have decked their flight attendants out in uniforms to distinguish them on a certain fleet or for a special occasion.
When Concorde took to the skies for the first time on January 21, 1976 British Airways deemed it necessary to adorn its Concorde crews in a new and exclusive uniform to compliment this new and exclusive service.
Sir Hardy Amies, who had previously created looks for the airline, was enlisted to create the uniform which was casually elegant and uncomplicated.
But after just six months it was withdrawn as the company did not want the Concorde crews to be seen as any more elitist than they were likely to become.
Meanwhile, German flag-carrier Lufthansa first introduced its Dirndls uniform look back in the 1950’s to mark the Oktoberfest. During this time, you could board a Lufthansa aircraft between Hamburg and New York or Munich and London and be served by crew in the traditional Bavarian outfit.
There were various looks for the crew on these routes. Blondes would wear a bright blue Dirndl, Brunette pink and, in addition to the usual navy blue uniforms, an azure-blue service costume was specially available for the Atlantic route. Thus the service on board was accompanied by a kind of fashion show.
The airline has continued with the tradition on selected routes over the years with the latest 1950’s costumes being designed and tailor made by Munich-based fashion house Angermaier Trachten.
Inflight Fashion Shows
When an airline introduces a new uniform for its crews it is often customary for the new look to be launched with a high-profile fashion show using the aisle of its aircraft as a catwalk.
But from the mid 1960’s one airline took the concept a step further.
Philippine Airlines showcased world-class designs using Filipina models, showcasing up to six different designs which they changed in to in the aircraft’s galley.
From the mid-1970’s, right up until the late 1990’s, Air Jamaica offered its passengers the chance to watch a full inflight fashion show on longer flights. Mid-way through the journey the airlines Flight Attendants would change and parade the aisles modelling the latest swimwear, dresses and outfits all created by up and coming Caribbean designers.
Finnair has been an advocate for inflight fashion shows for a number of years. In 2012 the airline teamed up with Finnish design house Marimekko and staged an innovative fashion show en route to Shanghai, which showcased looks from Marimekko designer Sami Ruotsalainen.
In 2016 the carrier teamed up with Finavia at Helsinki Airport to put on another unique fashion show. Seven top names in European and Asian fashion design presented their creations on one of the airports runways, flanked by one of the airlines wide-bodied jets.
The Iconic Braniff Airlines And Emilio Pucci Collaboration Was An Industry First
When US carrier Braniff International enlisted the help of Italian designer Emilio Pucci to recreate a new look for its flight attendants in 1965, it became one of the earliest collaborations between an airline and a high-profile fashion designer.
Pucci was tasked with creating a new look, a new interpretation of the fashion of the time, for an updated Braniff which included wild geometric designs in a kaleidoscope of popular colours from the era, like pinks, browns, and greens. Sex was the key message and silhouettes involved micro miniskirts and long sleeve jumpsuits, and risqué ads featured flight attendants doing a striptease.
But the clothing was secondary to the ‘space bubble’ rain helmet that topped off the look. The fanciful head gear was to inspire much in popular culture, way beyond its function as hair protection against inclement weather. Indeed it has been argued that this bold, futuristic design informed or inspired the fantastic Flight Attendant headgear portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film – 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The helmet was not worn during the flight and a zip allowed the plexiglass plastic helmet to split in to for storage during the flight.
While the helmet was initially an integral part of the new Pucci look, the creation lasted just a year before being dropped by the airline. But its impact had already been made and even today, over 50 years later, the look remains one of the most iconic ever to have graced an aircraft aisle.
© confessionsofatrolleydolly.com by Dan Air