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Uniformly glamorous – a history of flight attendant uniforms

The old-fashioned glamour of flight is brought to mind in the pristine uniforms of the cabin crew. These have had countless makeovers since the first flight attendants took to the skies in the 1930s; Artemis Aerospace takes a trip down the aviation catwalk.

Picture a flight attendant and, whatever the uniform, you know the person wearing it will be immaculately turned out. Throughout the history of commercial flight, fashions in cabin crew uniforms have ebbed and flowed; hemlines have gone up and down, jackets and hats have come and gone, but the overarching image is one of spotless star quality.

The first flight attendants, known as stewardesses, were taken on by Boeing Air transport in 1930 and were in fact qualified nurses. This was a deliberate move to make passengers, nervous of such a new method of transport, feel that they were in safe hands. They were dressed in a uniform intended to emphasise their nursing credentials. It comprised a skirt and jacket in dark green wool, with a matching green beret-style hat and a green and grey wool cape.

The role of cabin crew has always been to look after the passengers and keep them secure and comfortable, and this requires not only glamour but comfort and ease of movement. As a result, the cape was soon dropped as impractical. In the subsequent decades, there weren’t many developments in uniform. Colours tended to be navy blue, brown or dark green in the winter and beige, light green and light blue for summer, perhaps unconsciously still echoing the nurse theme. World War ll led to more militaristic tailored designs, but once the war was over, more stylish influences began to creep in, such as the ‘New Look’ pioneered by Dior in 1947, which emphasised a cinched-in waist and a full, A-line skirt.

However, once the swinging sixties exploded onto the world, the design of flight attendant uniforms really took off. Perhaps the most ‘space age’ design was introduced when Braniff International Airways’ advertising team collaborated with Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci, known for his geometric prints in psychedelic colours. His design was known as the Supersonic Derby uniform and comprised a multi-coloured nylon jersey dress with matching tights, bright green boots with orange cross-hatching and even a matching bowler hat. Mary Quant’s miniskirts and shift dresses also began to influence uniform design, and outfits made in the new synthetic fabrics such as terylene and polyester replaced linen and wool, as they were more practical and easy to care for.

It was also during the 1960s that Singapore Airlines commissioned Pierre Balmain, the famous French couturier, to design its uniform, which remains largely unchanged today. This is due, as the airline states, to its ‘tradition, practicality and elegance’. It comprises a ‘sarong kebaya’ – an ankle-length wrap skirt – which, due to its iconic status, has even been displayed at Madam Tussauds Wax Museum.

The popularity of Chanel’s two-piece suit influenced cabin crew uniform design in the 1970s and, as the decade passed, short dresses with hotpants underneath, or even hotpants on their own, found their way into the uniform catalogue of many American airlines.

The era of power dressing in the 1980s and into the 1990s brought further fashion shifts, with padded shoulders, narrow waists and wide lapels, such as the 1986 Qantas outfit which was designed by Yves St Laurent and featured an abstract kangaroo motif.

With the dawn of the new millennium, the popularity of designer uniforms grew hugely. Virgin Atlantic took on Vivienne Westwood who came up with the iconic red uniforms still worn today, and Martin Grant, Balenciaga and Christian Lacroix have all produced airline collections. In 2016 Ettore Billotte revamped Alitalia’s uniform, which harked back to the ‘50s and included long gloves and stockings. He has also designed for Etihad, coming up with a double-breasted tailored jacket and straight matching skirt or trousers. Lawrence Xu combined a classic Oriental-style cheongsam with the shape of a Western suit in sophisticated muted colours for Hainan Airlines, making a hundred sample outfits before they were satisfied with the result.

To round up our glimpse into high-flying fashion, last year British Airways unveiled its first new uniform design in twenty years, created by British fashion designer Ozwald Boateng who was commissioned in 2018 to replace the existing Julien MacDonald design.

More than 1,500 BA staff had an input in the design and testing of the new collection over the past four years, including taking part in 50 workshops and trials in the air and on the ground to ensure suitability. The edit includes a jumpsuit for female cabin crew as well as dress, skirt, trousers and tunic and hijab option, with a tailored three-piece suit for men. The fabric is jacquard and sports a variation of the BA Speedmarque logo.

Flight attendant uniforms are rigorously tested before launch. They must be flexible and durable, as they will be worn in different climates, and above all combine comfort with elegance.

The uniform of each airline projects its own individual ethos and culture and, as the face of the business, should communicate the brand’s message with style. Above all, it should be worn with a sense of pride by the people who wear it every day.