Air Hostess Uniforms

Aus. Gov. airline TAA kept the same uniform from 1946 to '64.  TAA Museum

American stewardess, circa 49/50. Image by Chaimers Butterfield
They are called air hostess, cabin crew, stewardesses or flight attendants - these glorified 'waitresses of the sky' who must wheel the drinks trolleys, ensure the seatbelts are fastened, assuage the irascible, soothe the jangled nerves of the fear-of-flying crowd and just generally attend to the comfort and safety of all on board.

As a career, 'Air hostess" always had a patina of glamour attached, despite the sometimes gruelling work on board and this was particularly true in the 20th century when air travel was a new and exciting adventure that few people could afford.

Pub sign in Tollerton, England.Image by Kate Jewel
From an aesthetic point of view, the job was demanding. An air hostess was the face of the company and as the representative. who reflected the image and ethos of the airline she had to look just right...fashionable and attractive, conservative but not too conservative, friendly but not too friendly, not too short, not too tall and as the times changed, so too did the air hostess uniforms.

The Changing  Look of the Air Hostess

In the beginning, when air travel was a bit rough around the edges, air hostess outfits were designed to reflect conservative stability and inspire confidence, so they were created along the lines of  armed forces or nurses uniforms - 'serious'.  The first US air hostess, Ellen Church started the whole air hostess ball rolling when she managed to convince the powers that be at United Airlines that passengers would feel comforted by a nurse on board (prior to that, the only flight attendants were usually a male first officer or pilot). In fact one early airline; Eastern Airlines, did use actual nurses uniforms. They reasoned people would be comforted by the fact that if they crashed there would at least be the suggestion of medical assistance at the ready.

The first US air hostess, Ellen Church, in a United Airlines plane in 1930. Smithsonian. The uniform was bottle green,

As time wore on, airlines clued on the sex-appeal value of their female cabin staff and gradually the military-like formality gave way to something a little sexier and more fashionable. Designers, milliners and department store advisors were called on by some companies as early as the late 30s to spice up the uniforms. However, there was a delicate line there and a semblance of calm respectability had to be maintained, so the girls couldn't dress too wildly...'smart conservative' was the theme.

It seemed the industry was keen to overlay a kind of glamorous 'availability' upon it's female flight attendants. Up until the 80s, there was a restriction on married women becoming an air hostesses in the US. If a single hostess marriage, she was fired. In addition to this demand, a hostess had to be a petite size and retire at either 32 or 35, depending on the airline. In the 70s and 80s these sexist discriminations were fought by the flight attendants union, which had been battling for improvements in pay, benefits and working conditions since the late 40s.

Getting Groovier

While the conservative 'official uniform' look still lingered into the post-war decades, towards the sixties,  designers began creating distinctive high fashion looks for individual airlines. These included such trend-setting luminaries as Pierre Cardin (Pakistan Airlines),  Mary Quant (Courtline), Balmain (Singapore Airlines) Valentino and Ralph Laurent (TWA) Designer  and Bill Blass (American Airlines). In the late 60s, Oleg Casssini created an ultra modern outfit for Air West (the airline was purchased later by Howard Hughes) with a polyester side-buttoned jacket, knee high boots and a funky mini skirt.
Oleg Cassini's design for Air West

PSA grooves it up
In general, Australian airlines were a little more conservative and while outfits in the 60's and 70s departed from the standard efficient-looking, crisp white uniform look, they weren't quite as radical as the US.  Qantas Australia, for example, drew the line at the mini-skirt and while they revved up the uniforms, the hem lines still sat relatively low:

Qantus 1964 to '69. Image from Qantus website.
Up, Up and Away, with TAA, the Friendly way to Fly...

Singapore Girls

Although it was heavily criticised for being sexist, one of the most successful advertising campaigns, especially in the Asia Pacific region,  was the 1972 Singapore Girls concept for Singapore Airlines - Singapore girl, you're a great way to fly- which featured attractive hostesses in Asian themed ultra-feminine sarongs and exuding inviting, beaming smiles. They were the hostess with the mostest and it's an image that the airline still retains.

Seductive Singapore Girls

Vintage Air France Uniforms.

TAA (Trans Australia  Airlines) uniforms circa 1970. Image from Museum Victoria.
The new non-sexist Qantas image 1974 to '85. Image from Qantus website
As airline travel became more commonplace and mass marketed, the air hostess lost a little of her mystique and glamour.  In the history of the airlines, she went from 'serious' nurse to conservative hostess to model fashion plate and now, sharing the occupation with a plethora of male stewards,  sits somewhere between only faintly glamorous and an underpaid work horse who must be well versed in public relations/security/hospitality and first aid.

Vintage Pan Am Bags