FASHION IN FLIGHT
Amidst all the stress and seat-kicking that occur during air travel, flight attendants are the calming force that make flying thousands of feet in the air a manageable, and even enjoyable, experience. Though today we know flight attendants as the hospitable, snack-giving individuals who keep us informed on flight safety, there was once a time where their roles in air travel were completely different. Initially, flight attendants were a group of female “nurses,” meant to be “decorative waitresses with geisha-like instructions.” In order to be a flight attendant in the 1930s-1980s, you had to be a woman, under 30 years old, under 130 pounds, and “be reasonably personable as well as amiable,” among many other guidelines ridiculous by today’s standards (source).
In other words, there is inherent sexism ingrained in the industry of air travel, and though we are seeing an increase of male flight attendants, the influence of past guidelines is blatantly obvious. According to a study conducted by Zippia, female flight attendants earn $0.94 for every dollar that male flight attendants make, despite the fact that nearly 74.6% of flight attendants in the United States are women, while only 21.6% are men. Beyond the financial discrimination occuring today and throughout the history of air travel, there have been numerous misogynistic obstacles female flight attendants have had to face.
Due to the fact that flight attendants were meant to be beautiful accessories to the flying experience, the fashion industry has had a monumental impact on their uniforms in terms of furthering beauty standards and clothing trends. This interaction between industries played a huge role in the formation and evolution of flight attendants’ uniforms to reflect class, beauty, status, and sexuality. The style of the uniforms generally followed the evolution from luxury, to militarism, to blatant sexualization, as they were both catered to the times and the tastes of the wealthy men aboard. Well known designers like Vivienne Westwood designed enchanting uniforms with eye-catching detail, and waist-hugging tailoring that were intended to catch the attention of (male) passengers as recreational flying became a much more competitive industry after WWII. It was in this era that we started to see the complete sexualization of flight attendants as a marketing tactic. Because the air travel business wanted to popularize the idea that air travel is a luxurious experience, the style of the uniforms were vital in selling an atmosphere of class and luxury. Flights today can be notably pricy, but in the first years of commercial air travel, they were so expensive that it was almost exclusively used by wealthy men (particularly men within Wall Street).
Today, the uniforms of flight attendants are much more practical and professional than they have been in the past, as airlines have begun to look at new, inventive ways to incorporate fashion into flight attendants’ uniforms without such blatant sexualization. The Ukraine-based SkyUp Airlines recently launched a new flight attendant uniform that consists of an orange suit and white sneakers, which illustrates the current modernization of commercial airway’s uniforms, and the increasing distance between sexuality and the occupation of “flight attendant.”
The various styles of flight attendant uniforms tell a story of change not only in terms of fashion but also in terms of societal growth. Despite sexist undertones, there is a really eclectic collection of uniform styles throughout the history of air travel, and it’s fascinating to see.