The joy of flying has evolved over the years and in that time the costumes of flight attendants on commercial flights have been subjected to constant change. Through the years, any flight attendant costume has reflected the values of an airline, the sartorial culture of its place of origin, and the wider global trends of the period.

In the early years of flying, the standard flight attendant outfit for women largely catered to the fashion preferences of men as airline companies tried to lure its largely male customer base to this new innovation in the transportation sector. With time, various international movements influenced the outfits of flight attendants such as the Sexual Revolution, the waves of feminism, the rise of commodity culture, the growing number of men joining the air hospitality service, and, most recently, the popular concept of functional fashion.

The Dawn of the Century: During the nascent stages of commercial aviation, flight attendants were usually registered nurses and their costumes were designed to reflect the ideals of care, support, and compassion associated with the nursing profession. United Airlines, inspired by the outfit of Florence Nightingale, created an outfit comprising a green cape, a double-breasted jacket, and a calf-length skirt, which was worn between 1930 and 1932. George Petty’s collection of pin-up paintings of women for Esquire exerted a certain influence on the aesthetic of the flight attendant costume and became known as the “Petty Girl” uniform.

Post Second World War: In the post-war years, the prescribed outfit of the average airline flight attendant took on a militaristic design, incorporating cuff ranks and overseas caps into the ensemble. International flight attendant costumes which drew inspiration from military uniforms were designed to convey authority and enforce civil behavior. With the advent of the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s, stewardess costumes began to adopt splashes of color, leading to Emilio Pucci’s variegated prints and peppy accoutrements, mirroring the period’s fashion exuberance. Braniff International Airways adopted this collection for their in-flight staff and introduced the risqué “The Airstrip” uniform.

The Tumultuous Fourth Quarter: Second-wave Feminism addressed the issue of flight attendant uniforms objectifying women’s bodies. By the 1980s, short skirts and tightly fitted clothing were put aside in favor of more professional shouldered jackets and long skirts to provide stewardesses something comfortable to wear during the course of long flights while adding a measure of elegance, which used to be a staple aspect of the profession. In these years, the increase in the number of men entering the flight hospitality sector gave rise to the need for a male flight attendant uniform. Men’s uniforms have not experienced a drastic change since their original inception, which usually included tuxedos or waistcoats, white shirts, ties or bowties, trousers, and formal shoes – very similar to their contemporary rendition.

The Eve of the Millennium: By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the novelty of flying had faded and cheap flights were all the rage. As a result, flight attendant fashion changed once again to suit the requirements of the job. An emphasis was laid on international fashion – with a few exceptions such as Singapore Airlines – to attract a global clientele who would feel at home in any airline, anywhere. In this period, air hospitality clothing began to become more androgynous and a corporate look was the dominant styling preference.

In 2019, Aer Lingus and Virgin Atlantic announced that they would be relaxing their dress codes for female flight attendants with the introduction of trousers as an alternative to skirts as a part of their standard flying uniform as well as the option of not wearing makeup. Such shifts in flight attendant costumes, it is presumed, will continue to take place as attitudes towards flying commercially change, the opinions of flight attendants begin to gain more traction in popular media, and the nature of air travel moves towards cost-cutting and sustainable models of operation.

In future, flight attendant fashion is bound to be more equitable and functional, laying emphasis on substance over style amidst international skies. The decision taken by Aer Lingus and Virgin Atlantic is revolutionary in scope and the next few years will show us how quickly the outfits of today’s flight staff change to keep with the ideologies of our times.

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