Commercial airlines go back as far as 1909, with the first civilian-passenger flight in the United States taking place in 1914. According to AvStop.com, in the United States, the sons of wealthy magnates served as the earliest flight attendants, known as “couriers,” until the mid-1920s. As airlines attempted to save money at the end of the decade, the co-pilot often took on the role of tending to passengers, including serving them food and drinks.
In the United Kingdom, Imperial Airways employed “cabin boys” or “stewards” during the 1920s. In the U.S., Stout Airways had the first male stewards in 1926, while Western Airlines had stewards serve food starting in 1928. Because commercial air travel was so new, early airlines wanted stewards to wear uniforms that would instill confidence in the flight experience, so they wore military-inspired outfits with hats, epaulettes, insignia and brass buttons on the jackets.
United Airlines hired the first female steward, or stewardess, a registered nurse named Ellen Church, in 1930. By 1936, airlines had shifted to hiring female registered nurses over men, since a large part of their job was to care for passengers who were nauseated and vomiting in the noisy and uncomfortable DC-3 planes. Often these stewardesses, or “air hostesses,” wore regular nurse uniforms, while the flight attendants for United also wore green berets and capes.
Unfortunately, the women were also subjected to male passengers groping and grabbing them while they served food, earning about $1 an hour. Stewardesses had to pledge they wouldn’t get married or have a baby while working for the airline; if they did, they could be fired. During World War II, registered nurses left their civilian jobs to join the war effort, so airlines hired young women without nursing skills to take their place.
These women had to be comely, as described in a 1936 New York Times article, “The girls who qualify for hostesses must be petite; weight 100 to 118 pounds; height 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches; age 20 to 26 years. Add to that the rigid physical examination each must undergo four times every year, and you are assured of the bloom that goes with perfect health.” At the time, it was understood that these applicants should also be white.
Very few young women who applied to be a flight attendant actually got the job; it was a position as coveted and competitive as becoming a model or a pageant winner. Being hired as a flight attendant, the narrative went, validated your beauty and poise and, as a reward, you got to travel the world. In the 1960s, as in the ’30s, stewardesses also had to be single, childless, and within a narrow age range. A 1966 New York Times classified listed the qualifications for a flight attendant job: “A high school graduate, single (widows and divorcees with no children considered), 20 years of age (girls 19 1/2 may apply for future consideration). 5’2″ but no more than 5’9″, weight 105 to 135 in proportion to height and have at least 20/40 vision without glasses.”
Says airline uniform collector Cliff Muskiet,
You had to have a certain look, a certain height, a certain size. You had to be young, free, single. You had to be Miss Universe or Miss World. Only a few girls were hired, so they were very fortunate. They lived this glamorous life because only a few people were able to fly, and flying was really something special back then. Those girls really lived a life a lot of people dreamed about.
Before the 1950s, to fit into this rigid beauty standard in the United States, stewardesses had to be white. According to BlackPast.org, a young African American nurse named Ruth Carol Taylor started to push against this discriminatory practice in 1957 when she applied to be a flight attendant at TWA. The airline turned her down for the job, and she countered by filing a complaint with New York State Commission on Discrimination. Then, she heard that Mohawk Airlines, a local carrier serving the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, wanted to hire minorities as stewardesses, so she applied there. She was hired and flew as the first African American flight attendant on February 11, 1958. Chagrined, three months later, TWA hired Margaret Grant as the first black stewardess for a major U.S. airline. Taylor had successfully broken the race barrier.
Because no one tried to hide the fact that flight attendants were there to be eye candy, big-named designers had a fun time dressing them up and coming up with sexy new gimmicks to promote air travel. In 1968, Jean Louis gave United Airlines stewardesses a simple, mod A-line dress with a wide stripe down the front and around the collar, and paired it with a big, blocky kefi-type cap. During the ’60s and ’70s, Pucci designed five different uniforms for Braniff International Airways.
If you look at the Pucci uniforms, you can’t imagine that women wore these items. There was even a space helmet, like a plastic bubble. It was used when it was raining outside, so the hat and hair wouldn’t get wet. Braniff also had something called the ‘Air Strip’ in 1965. During service, the stewardesses would take something off to reveal a different layer and a different look underneath. They might be wearing a skirt and remove it to show off their hot pants beneath.
The stewardess image reached its height of sexualization, becoming a collective cultural fantasy that airlines shamelessly promoted through their advertising. The dark side of this trope was that women who got this prestigious position were often subjected to sexual harassment from drunken passengers, who might pinch, pat, and proposition the stewardesses while they worked, according to Kathleen Barry’s Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants.
Some of the gimmicks were just plain silly. TWA debuted paper stewardess serving dresses in 1968 to reflect the regional cuisine that was being served onboard. The four styles included “British wench,” “French cocktail,” “Roman toga,” and “Manhattan penthouse pajamas.” These dresses were made of a fabric-like paper that’s a little tougher than the paper you write on. “They were disposable so the flight attendants would only wear them once or twice,” Muskiet says. “Funny, but at the same time, very impractical.”
Such whimsy didn’t last long. In the United States, the 1970s deregulation of the airline industry caused the price of airline tickets to drop, and new bargain airlines joined the market. As a result, more and more people were able to fly to their destinations, but the luxurious perks of air travel and goofy stunts like paper serving dresses were first things to get the ax.
Airline memorabilia enthusiast Todd Lappin says,
Before deregulation in the mid-’70s, the government would set the fare and the routes. It wasn’t really until deregulation that discount airlines like People Express and Southwest Airlines could change the economic model. That’s a process we’re still working through. But the upshot of it is we don’t think much of flying anymore. It’s not a big deal. Everybody does it. So the experience has changed quite a bit.
Around the same time, the women who worked as stewardess in the United States were getting fed up, according to Barry. They organized the Stewardesses for Women’s Rights feminist group in 1972, and two years later, former flight attendant Paula Kane published her tell-all, Sex Objects in the Sky: A Personal Account of the Stewardess Rebellion. Through strikes, Title VII lawsuits and campaigns, stewardesses protested their exploitation, demanded to be taken seriously as professionals (including better pay and benefits), and fought against discrimination based on sex, beauty and age.
All this activism led to better compensation for flight attendants, looser restrictions on age and weight and men joining their ranks. The progress meant the end of the tiny, colorful shift dresses, which were replaced by professional-looking suits with skirts past the knee in earth tones.
“By the ’80s, you had wide shoulder pads and wide baggy dresses with very long skirts,” Muskiet says. “In terms of fashion, the ’80s were a very ugly time. Yves Saint Laurent did a Qantas uniform in the ’80s, and even though he’s a top designer, it’s a horrible uniform.”
“Today, you have different types of women working as flight attendants—young, old, tall, small, fat, skinny,” Muskiet says. “So you have to think about a uniform that suits everyone. Uniforms have to be professional, and hot pants and go-go boots are not really professional. Times have changed.”
Lisa Hix, an associate editor at CollectorsWeekly.com, has worked for Yahoo!, Flavorpill, KQED online and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her work also appeared at Bitch, Jezebel, Bust and Glamour. Find her on Twitter at @lisahix.