British Airways (BA) is one of the world’s best know airlines and in 2019 celebrated its 100th anniversary, no mean feat in todays cut throat aviation industry.
The carrier can trace its history back to August 25, 1919 when Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited (AT&T), a forerunner of today’s British Airways, launched the world’s first daily international scheduled air service, between London and Paris. That first flight, which took off from Hounslow Heath, close to today’s Heathrow Airport, carried a single passenger and cargo that included newspapers, Devonshire cream, jam and grouse.
Fast forward 100 years and today, with a fleet of nearly 300 aircraft, a British Airways plane takes off from somewhere in the world every 90 seconds. The airline carries up to 145,000 passengers every day, some 45 million per year and serves those customers 25 million cups of tea, 9.9 million bottles of wine and 1.25 million bottles of Champagne.
Today, its Cabin Crew are some of the best dressed in the industry. Over the years, the carrier has had relationships with some of the world’s top Haute Couture designers. Each new uniform came with its flair and style, reflected in its aesthetic and functionality.
Here we take a look back over the airline’s styles. Each fabulous uniform is here, from Paper dresses to Concorde Crews in their own apparel.
Initial Uniforms 1919-1939
Like all Flight Attendant uniforms in the early flying days, garments were designed for a male figure. Heavily military-inspired and created from whatever materials were available, these were usually in Khaki colours or navy blue.
In January 1922 Instone Airline LTD another forerunner of todays BA introduced uniforms for Pilots and “Cabin Boys”, believed to be the first airline service uniforms.
1931 saw a significant step forward in passenger comfort when Imperial Airways introduced the Hanley Page HP42. These four-engined airliners accommodated up to 24 passengers with first-class Pullman-style interiors and carried a Steward to attend to passengers needs who changed into a white coat to provide full meal service.
In 1939 Imperial Airways was merged with British Airways to form British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), becoming the British state airline.
The first fashion designer to create a uniform for BOAC was Maurice Helman, who gained inspiration for his creation from the world of Haute Couture against the backdrop of World War II.
Introduced in September 1946, Helman created the uniforms to meet ‘the practical requirements of airline personnel.’ Although the distinct military style remained with a collar, tie and stylish hat, they were designed with elegance and modernity, in a smart shade of grey.
The look was softened slightly in the early 1950’s with an open neck blouse, no belt and made to look much more feminine in both fit and appearance.
With an ever-expanding route network and thus an ever-expanding variation in passenger cultures, national dress uniforms for its Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Japanese services were introduced in the mid-1950s.
White cheongsams, colourful saris and traditional kimonos were worn by Stewardesses from these countries who spoke the relevant languages and understood the local cultures. It was an extension of BOAC’s ‘taking more care’ approach on routes with strong historical links, which passengers greatly appreciated.
British European Airways 1946-1959
British European Airways (BEA) was formed on January 1, 1946 following the end of World War II and the introduction of the Civil Aviation Act to establish flights to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East from UK airports.
With the end of hostilities fashion was once again becoming more mainstream. Rations and limitations on fabric was reduced and the stylish Flight Attendant was born.
The stylish new grey barathea suit had a rolled collar with a deep revere, curving gracefully down to twin buttons at a nipped and tucked waistline. The new-look was heavily influenced by the courtiers of Paris and inspired by the Christian Dior collections of the time.
These early BEA uniforms were about introducing both a practical and fashionable style for the feminine changes that were taking place in the industry with the introduction of more female ‘stewards’ or ‘Air Hostesses’ as they were now known.
The second creation for BOAC was of a very similar design to the 1952 uniform. Put together by Sir Norman Hartnell, an influential British Fashion designer and dressmaker to the Queen, the uniform was a stylish navy suit, worn with a white blouse and gloves.
The 60’s heralded a change in the perception and designs of female cabin crew uniforms. It was the birth of the ‘Jet-Set’ era when style and high fashion were not just for the glamorous passengers but also airline staff.
The Hartnell uniforms reflected both the spirit of the time and the brand values of the growing airline. They presented classic simplicity of design while keeping its uniformed girls ‘feminine and in fashion. It was the start of a relationship with top British haute couturiers that has endured to this day.
In 1969 BOAC introduced kimonos on their UK-Japan polar route. Each female Japanese crew member was given an allowance to buy a kimono of their choice from their local shops, the only stipulation being that it must be of traditional design and pattern.
These were eventually retired in 1974 at the request of the Japanese crew, who stated that while they were distinctive, they were also challenging to wear while on duty.
British European Airways 1960
In 1956 students at the Royal College of Art were invited to submit designs for a new uniform for British European Airways, with John Cavanagh, one of the top names in British fashion, on the selection panel.
The chosen design student was Sylvia Ayton (MBE), who created apparel in a new material of pure worsted with a tiny blue-black check with a black border. A hip-length, wide neck pleated jacket buttoned to the neck was coupled with a straight skirt with Dior-style pleat at the back. This was worn with a blue single-breasted raincoat lined in red and a forage hat without a cockade, made in the same material and designed for easy packing.
The look for the girls was very in keeping with the time – chic and smart. Male uniforms however continued along the more traditional lines – single or double-breasted jackets and trousers in dark blues or black colours, matched with crisp white shirts and ties.
BOAC ‘PAPER DRESS’ 1967
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 made of paper, instead a fireproof 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 into 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!
British European Airways 1967
By the mid-1960’s British European Airways was acknowledged as the #1 airline in Europe, and so its seemed fitting that the UK’s #1 couturier and dressmaker to the Queen – Sir Hardy Amies, would design a new uniform for its crew.
Previously BEA had approached uniform designs as ready-to-wear rather than made-to-measure fashion. Still, the new Amies creation was the airlines first significant flight into high-end fashion.
Amies had many years of experience designing uniforms for sectors as diverse as military and retail. His combination of haute-couture creativity and knowledge of the practical and financial restraints of developing a uniform made him an obvious choice. Indeed, the design not only had to be right aesthetically and practically but there were also the elements of cost, durability and the sheer logistics of supply to be factored in.
Speaking about the new apparel Amies said “I am very pleased to design new uniforms for this great national airline. BEA carries more passengers than any other airline in Europe and provides an excellent shop window for British Fashion.”
Taking to the skies in 1967, gone were the dark blues and blacks of the Ayton uniform, replaced with a vibrant red, white and blue creation which echoed the colours of BEA’s new livery and the Union Jack flag. But one of the most significant changes of the Amies creation was shorter length skirts, in keeping with the style of the ‘swinging sixties’ and introduced following requests from the then BEA’s Chairman’s wife.
The dress and jacket were in Royal Blue terylene and worsted material, coupled with a white blouse and gloves. Meanwhile, the striking red-caped overcoat provided a splash of colour to match the red wings of the new aircraft livery. It was also the first time that trousers were part of a BEA stewardesses wardrobe.
The new uniform certainly made BEA crew stand out across the continent, with airline management finally taking a leaf out of its American counterparts and realising the potential selling appeal of dressing its 1,500 female customer-facing staff in fashionable attire.
By the 1970’s fashion had become very space-age. Neil Armstrong had become the first man to set foot on the moon in 1969 and since then the world had gone space mad, including the airlines.
Pan American’s founder Juan Trippe had promised to be the first airline to take passengers to space. Between 1968 and 1971, the airline issued over 93,000 “First Moon Flights” Club cards to space enthusiasts eager to make a reservation for the first commercial flight to the Moon.
In keeping with the trend BOAC enlisted the help of Britain’s top young courtier Clive Evans, to create a new ‘space-age’ uniform for the introduction of its brand new Boeing 747 aircraft.
Evans had won the coveted tender over leading UK designers Mary Quant and Jean Muir. His new design was incredibly different from previous uniforms, reflecting the new ‘London Look.’
It was also convenient and versatile, suited to the demands of dealing with the increase in passengers numbers on the 747 and changes in climate at the growing number of destinations BOAC flew.
A summer uniform comprised either a coral pink or Caribbean blue terylene and cotton twill dress, with rigid geometric lines. The fabric allowed the dress to be easily washable in the crew members hotel sink and drip-dry overnight, ready for the following day’s duty.
The winter dress and smart jacket in terylene wool worsted was also easy-care with a warm wool top-coat and boots.
Following BEA’s lead, the carrier also permitted trousers for the first time for its female crew.
The uniform was later adapted to for the airlines Pakistani crew. A navy blue tunic with matching trousers and white georgette hood, styled to conform to a modified type of national costume.
British European Airways 1972
Designed again by Sir Hardy Amies, the only designer to create more than one uniform for the airline, the updated yet slightly more conservative pieces were introduced in 1972 and included a French navy suit with twin rows of scarlet stitching.
Amies described it as “elegant and feminine” and reasoned that “there is a strong current trend away from uniformity, especially amongst the young, so I have designed a uniform which does allow the expression of individuality”.
Indeed crew achieved individuality through interchangeable red, white or blue blouses and scarves. A short hat trimmed with BEA red Petersham ribbon was in, but the stunning red trench coat of the previous design was out, replaced with a beige coloured replica.
Just five years after introducing the first Amies outfit, the change in the uniform was more than just a new look. Times were changing in the industry and in May 1972, the UK government decided to merge BEA and BOAC to form British Airways, with the new airline taking to the skies on March 31, 1974.
Management at BEA are believed not to have like the Clive Evans BOAC uniform and with a merger looming, staff carried this outfit forward to the newly formed British Airways.
British Airways Concorde 1976
Concorde will always be the most iconic and glamorous aircraft to grace the skies. From its sleek and elegant look to the superstars that hopped on and off the all first-class supersonic jet between London and New York as if it were a taxi, the airliner remains unsurpassed in style and luxury.
Taking to the skies with British Airways on January 21, 1976 it was deemed necessary that Concorde Cabin Crew be dressed in a new and exclusive uniform to compliment this unique and exclusive service.
Sir Hardy Amies was enlisted again to create the uniform, which was casually elegant and uncomplicated. Made of 100 per cent Dacron polyester in gabardine and crepe designed to be ‘totally uncrushable, washable fabric,’ pieces came in either pale blue or French navy.
But after just six months, BA withdrew the uniform as the company did not want the Concorde crews to be seen as any more elitist than they were likely to become.
British Airways June 1977-1985
By June 1977, every trace of British European Airways and BOAC had disappeared. British Airways was now the UK’s global flag carrier, so a hand-me-down uniform by Amies was no longer suitable for its thousands of Cabin Crew.
Indeed, its crew and front-line uniformed staff were now seen as an incredibly important part of the BA brand, summed up by British Airways’ then deputy Chairman, Sir Henry Marking “Our uniformed girls are our best ambassadors and our best advertisements… It is they who are constantly in the publics eye and it is on them and on their appearance and performance that the airline is so often judged so we must ensure that they are always a credit to British Airways.”
Top British fashion house Baccarat Wetherall was enlisted to design the new worldwide apparel, promising to produce a uniform “elegant enough to appear in Vogue”.
And it certainly made a fashion statement.
The classic tailored style uniform was dark blue, consisting of a red-lined jacket and a skirt or flared trousers, designed to ‘represent forward-thinking in fashion’. The white blouse was worn with silk scarves, with a dark blue leather shoulder bag and matching belt, all bearing the new British Airways logo. A lightweight PVC overcoat complimented the look, but the small-brimmed hats added more than a touch of class and British style.
While some perceived the Weatherall uniform as ‘business-like, attractive yet efficient and butch’, it was the beginning of the establishment of the new British Airways brand image to the public and the aviation industry.
British Airways 1985 – 1993
Frenchman Roland Klein, who had trained in Paris with Christian Dior and Karl Lagerfeld before opening his own label store in 1979, was the creator of the next uniform, unveiled in 1985.
Klein intended to create an ‘updated timelessness’ into his new outfits after deeming the Weatherall uniform ‘too tight, structured and stiff.’ His vision was to use the best elements of a British wardrobe, including classic British garments that the rest of the world had always admired and copied, all with a touch of French chic.
Designed to convey a less formal and more welcoming image to complement the airline’s new campaign to ‘put the customer first.’ It was the first time a range of uniforms was designed for all staff, including Cabin Crew, Ground Crew, Engineering and Technical Handling Staff, linking the whole airline together under a shared corporate style.
It comprised a wool midnight blue jacket and a pearl grey skirt and blue leather belt, which the crew wore with a long blouse with ‘Speedwing red’, blue and grey stripes. The blouse could be worn with a skirt in the same design in the summer.
For the first time, a traditional double-breasted suit in dark blue was designed especially for pilots with silver braid replacing the classic gold.
New national crew uniforms were also created with saris, a cheongsam and a traditional salwar kameez-style uniform for Pakistani crew.
Along with the stunning and now iconic new Landor Associates livery, management saw the uniform as one of the most essential elements of British Airways’ corporate image. It was subsequently used in advertising and publicity material.
British Caledonian 1988
British Caledonian was known as the ‘Second Force’ in UK aviation and for many years was a big thorn in BA’s side.
The carrier’s tartan outfits were one of the world’s most distinctive uniforms. Extremely popular with crew and passengers alike, the ‘Caledonian Girls’ became a vital element of the British Caledonian identity.
The airline encouraged its crew to show their individuality and identity, always with a nod towards their Scottish heritage with nine different coloured tartan uniforms to choose.
The tartans were adapted from clans originating in various parts of Scotland. The crew could choose from either ‘Graham of Monteith’, ‘Mackellar’, ‘Red MacDuff’, ‘MacInnes’, ‘Hunting MacRae’, ‘Kennedy’, ‘Hunting Ogilvie’ or ‘MacNab’; or if the crew preferred a more neutral look, then the ‘Dress Black Watch’ tartan was also available.
Before its merger with British Airways in 1988, the carrier had introduced a new uniform based on the ‘Princess Mary’ tartan fashioned in six colours of which the crew could choose two – rose, navy, blue, green, grey or black.
Following the merger, BA rebranded its charter subsidiary British Airtours as Caledonian Airways. The fabulous tartan uniforms continued to grace the skies until the airline was sold and subsequently merged with Flying Colours Airlines in 2000.
British Airways 1993 – 2003
As the airline soared into the nineties, another uniform redesign was announced, with Irish-American Paul Costelloe taking the helm for the new apparel.
Research had shown that the Roland Klien outfit had become very unpopular with passengers and staff alike. It was considered ‘old fashioned’ and ‘lacking in style.’ Klein’s outfit was just too 1980’s and the changeover to Costelloe was to cost BA £14 million.
Costelloe was very passionate about the environment and devoted much of his time sourcing ecologically sound fabrics. Renowned for his use of natural fibres, wherever possible, natural renewable materials were used.
A striking ‘Aztec’-design blouse with matching summer skirt made from polyester crêpe de Chine, was easy care and draped perfectly, keeping the multiple pleats razor sharp. This was coupled with a stylish tiny pin-dot design formal jacket and boater-style hat.
The uniform reflected BA’s global and multicultural nature, in keeping with the carriers recently introduced ‘World Images’ livery that proved incredibly unpopular with the public, so much so that the airline eventually decided to focus solely on the ‘Chatham Flag’ design still seen today.
Speaking of the new uniform Costelloe was very aware that “a uniform isn’t just something that you wear, it’s got to support you in your job, being comfortable and practical at all time.”
In 1996 BA unveiled its new Sari uniforms for Indian and Bangladeshi crews. These were created by Indian designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Kholsa but matched Costelloe’s Western uniform design in corporate red, white and blue.
British Airways 2003 – Present
The airline’s longest-serving uniform and indeed one of the most recognised uniforms worldwide was created by Julien Macdonald in 2003.
Macdonald, a former designer for Chanel and renowned for his celebrity clients such as Kylie Minogue and Kate Moss, said at the time “I wanted to create a uniform that puts the glamour back into flying. It couldn’t get any worse than the one they had for years, it made the cabin crew look like someone’s old granny queuing for a bus because it was so unflattering.” OUCH!
The uniform reflects the airline’s great British Heritage, combining a wool mix and pinstripe suit with a flattering cut, harking back to the pioneering days of aviation.
But it is the attention to detail that really creates a stylish and sophisticated look like no other with branded cufflinks, shirt buttons and striking red jacquard lining in the suiting.
The uniform range was designed to be worn by all staff, including Cabin and Flight Crew, Dispatchers, all Customer Contact staff, and Engineers and ramp employees.
In 2007 a new Indian uniform, designed by Rohit Bal was introduced, in which the key elements of the Julien Macdonald suit were incorporated. Nilufer Charner, British Airways’ International Cabin Crew manager said of the designs, “Our uniform is one of the most powerful symbols of the British Airways brand and it is important that our people feel proud to wear it. We wanted someone who could take our western uniform and interpret it into a design that reflects the cultures of India,” she said. “We know our customers value the regional services we provide them. The new uniform will complement these benefits to provide customers flying between India and the UK with a truly regional service.”
The uniform was further updated when BA introduced its ‘mixed fleet’ operation. A stylish and traditional hat created with top milliner Stephen Jones was a welcome addition. This was complemented by additional accessories such as a leather handbag, matching belt and leather gloves, designed by British leather goods specialist Tanner Krolle and worn by the 17,000 female staff.
In January 2007, uniform rules were also amended to allow staff to openly wear symbols of faith.
Looking To The Future
In 2018 it was announced that London based designer Ozwald Boateng OBE would be charged with creating a new look for the airlines staff.
Known for bringing a modern contemporary twist to the classic British tailoring institution, Boateng started his career in fashion in 1986 and became the first tailor to host a catwalk show at Paris Fashion Week. As well as being the youngest tailor to open a store in Savile Row, he was the creative director at Givenchy Homme from 2002 to 2006.
Boateng will be working closely with all of the airline’s employees throughout the development process, from shadowing them to understand their role onboard and how the uniforms need to perform to design, testing and final delivery.
He said, “I am really excited about creating this new uniform for British Airways. It is important for me to create something that makes all of British Airways’ 32,000 uniform-wearing employees across the world excited, at the same time as enabling me to really demonstrate my skills as a designer. British Airways is investing £4.5 billion over the next five years and the uniform I design will form part of that, so I’m looking forward to taking a uniform and refining it into a collection.”
Sadly, despite initial plans for the new uniform to be unveiled in time for the airlines centenary, it remains unclear when BA will roll out the look. Attempting to create a new uniform is no easy task, and the designer and airline agreed to delay the launch until both parties are happy.
Much like its Cabin Crew uniforms, British Airways has changed dramatically over the years and it is very exciting to see what the future holds for this iconic flag carrier.
Which uniform is your favourite? Let us know in the comments below.
© confessionsofatrolleydolly.com by Dan Air
Some information and images for this article have been taken from the book ‘Better By Design – Shaping The British Airways Brand’ by Paul Jarvis.
My favourite uniform is the current one. I’ll be sad to see it go. The hats are lovely but I also think male crew should have hats. They did up until 1985. Rouge crew all wear hats, both male and female and they look great
My favourite BA uniform is the current one of smart skirt suit, dark tights etc. I HATE the fact that they are changing it. Let us hope they don’t make it too drab and scruffy. Airline staff should ALWAYS look SMART, not like they have just come off a damn sports field. Keep the BA uniform as it is, please.