Think about the uniforms you see on your flights with Continental Airlines, United, and American. Today the woman’s flight attendant uniform is quite standard—usually a navy blue skirt paired with a white blouse—but there was once a time when the uniform was anything but ordinary.
The 1960s was the peak of the glamour of air travel. Flying was for the elite. Passengers and crew members dressed their best. Airplane meals were prepared by gourmet chefs and served by stewardesses wearing haute couture uniforms. Airlines called upon fashion designers such as Pucci and Dior to create uniforms for the flight attendant that made her attractive and alluring.
In my research, I was interested in the uniform as an instrument of power; it helped the designer gain global notoriety, it boosted the flight attendant’s image, and the airline used her image to succeed in a competitive market. Uniform changes and design adjustments reflect power struggles within the designer-flight attendant-airline relationship. The design of the uniform represents who is in command; a uniform is molded to fit the powers that be.
One of the most well-known fashion designer-airline collaboration occurred in 1965 when Emilio Pucci coupled with Braniff Airlines. Pucci created the “Gemini 4” uniform, referring to the layers of outfits he created for the collection, which included: a reversible lime green coat, a vibrant printed scarf and matching purse, white sunglasses, pink high heels, lime gloves, two-color stitch boots, a pink-printed mini-dress, and a space helmet called the “Space Bubble” for keeping hairstyles intact on windy tarmacs.
Airlines competed with each other and exploited their flight attendants as sex objects by outfitting them in ridiculous uniforms. The best examples are from Southwest Airlines (1965-1975) which included hot pants and go-go boots and Pacific Southwest Airways (1968) which included micro mini-dresses. Here are two interesting television commercials that aired during this time and show how the airlines marketed the stewardesses’ sexuality to the public:
The Braniff “Air Strip” campaign, 1968. A flight attendant peels off her uniform in the form of a strip tease.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKiVCkE0dDw
The Southwest Airlines Television Ad, 1972. Three women wearing hot pants walk across the tarmac and one of them says, “Remember what it was like before Southwest Airlines? You didn’t have hostesses in hot pants. Remember?”
In the years following the 1960s female empowerment helped the flight attendant gain back her dignity. This was accomplished by the Civil Rights Movement and flight attendant unions, which demanded rights and respect. Uniform were altered to focus on her professionalism. They became more conservative. The uniform in its practicality and seriousness is what continues to be the standard for flight attendants to this day.