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Dressing the stewardesses for a new era of travel

By the time I landed at Kuala Lumpur International this summer, I was fascinated by the distinctive outfits worn by the cabin crews on the three planes I took to get there. Flying Air Canada across my homeland, the attendants wore smart navy suits with a red scarf knotted at the neck. From Vancouver to Manila, Philippine Airlines attendants also wore suits. Theirs were boring beige. Next up was Malaysia Airlines, who dressed their crew in sarong kebayas, a traditional Malay garment consisting of a long skirt and blouse. The blue batik pattern was absolute eye candy compared to the ho-hum suits I’d seen so far. In contrast, I noticed the attendants on domestic carrier, Firefly – you couldn’t help but notice them strutting through the airport – decked out in racy orange dresses, skinny white belts circling their petite waists. On Malindo, the regional carrier I flew from KL to Penang, I again encountered conservative kebayas.

It got me thinking about what airlines are trying to tell me by how they dress their attendants. Islam is the state religion of Malaysia so it means something when Firefly opts for short, bright, body-hugging attire. All of this reminded me of a aviation exhibit I saw at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. We see a vintage photo of a stewardess inspecting her military-esque appearance in a full-length mirror displayed beneath the title, Adventure and Opportunity for Women. Beside it, all-caps emphasize the rules she must adhere to:

The first flight attendants back in the 1930s not only wore nurses uniforms, they were nurses. This was a maneuver to inspire the public’s confidence in the safety of air travel. Flight uniforms then transitioned to a military inspired style through the 40s and 50s. Think dark colours, long skirts and tailored jackets finished with brass buttons and epaulettes. By the 60s, airlines were starting to understand that their stewardesses had public relations value. Hemlines were hiked and sex used to lure passengers. When Southwest Airlines was taking off in 1971, for example, their inaugural uniform was hot pants and go-go boots. Typically uniforms these days imitate business wear.

Air stewardess with champagneSpeaking of hot pants, it’s tough to talk about air fashion without acknowledging sexism in the industry. In the 30s, not only were women required to be registered nurses, they also had to be unmarried (and were fired if they chose to marry), 25 or younger and weigh less than 115 pounds. Think things have changed? Philippine Airlines openly states on their website that flight attendants should have a good visual impact and pleasing personality, with a clear complexion and good set of teeth. They should also be not more than 27 years old. Oh, and females must be single (while men are only preferred to be single). And yes, weight does remain a factor today on most airlines. “In proportion to height,” is the phrase. Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines still calls its cabin crew Singapore Girls – “girl” being a dated term at best, and certainly frowned upon in professional contexts.

Incidentally, the Singapore Girls’ uniform hasn’t been updated since 1972. But a traditional garment like the sarong kebaya never really goes out of style. And one conceived by French fashion designer, Pierre Balmain, is likely one worth hanging onto.

I’ve been feeding my new obsession by clicking through Cliff Muskiet’s amazing website, Muskiet is a Netherlands man with a passion for flight attendant uniforms. He currently has, according to his website, a collection of 1210 uniforms from 460 airlines which he photographs, documents on his site, then stores. It seems a bit creepy until you realise Muskiet himself is a flight attendant with KLM.

Islamic air stewardessAs a Canadian, I most enjoyed seeing the iterations Air Canada’s uniforms – especially the short maple leaf red dress and fierce matching hat that was in service from 1968 to 1973. But Muskiet’s site also reveals some of the ways airlines try to create special experiences for passengers. Air Atlanta Icelandic, for example, uses an all black uniform with long sleeves and a high neck on pilgrimage flights to Saudi Arabia during Hajj. On a less serious note, Air France has a vast array of festive floral in-flight dresses it uses on flights to Tahiti.

So, what’s next for the cabin crew uniform? This past spring, Air Canada Rouge debuted its “trendy, urban” look consisting of fitted burgundy vests and sweaters topped with trilby hats. Best of all, the shoes: gray Fluevogs, with either red laces for men or red buckles for women. Could the industry be ready to move away from the corporate aesthetic it has embraced for the last few decades? Something I’ll have an eye on next time I’m at 30,000 feet.

Two lower Air stewardess pics courtesy of Shutterstock.

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