Flights in the ’60s and ’70s were like cocktail parties. Passengers puffed Havanas and sipped on Champagne. In-flight meals were Sunday Roast served in silverware. And flight attendants came dressed for the occasion–hair well-coiffed sporting uniforms designed by top designers such as Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain. It wasn’t just the Golden Age of Air Travel. It was the golden age of couture.
From simple to sexy
Fashion in the skies evolved with the growth of the aviation industry. In the 1940s, uniforms were far more modest, taking inspiration from military styles, with crisp blazers, shirts, trousers or ankle-length skirts. But as the airline business soared, uniforms began to metamorphose. Some became chicer, others shorter and sexier.
In 1962, French designer Marc Bohan at Dior designed Air France’s uniform–a powder blue business-chic attire. The beret was replaced by a navy blue pillbox hat adorned with Air France insignia. Then came Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga who created two outfits for the crew, one for winter and the other for summer in the late ’60s. Even through the ’70s, the airline boasted some of the best attires–polka-dotted dresses, mini coats, high pumps and hats.
American Airlines went from single-breasted jackets and knee-length skirts to a modish sheath dress with a thick stand-away collar. It came in the colours of the American flag–red, white and blue, and was accompanied by a belt and a hair bow in the same shades. The hem of skirts at Pacific Southwest Airlines went up notches. Mini-coats, hot shorts, belts, neck scarves and knee-high boots, flights had become the new runway. Southwest bosses apparently said, “The girls must be able to wear kinky leather boots and hot pants or they don’t get the job.”
A mid-air costume change
The now-defunct Braniff Airways had flight attendants changing clothes on the flight. They sported layered clothing, which could be removed for different activities. It was called the “Air Strip”. The FAs, then more appropriately called air-hostesses, wore reversible cold-weather coats, matching gloves and boots. When they boarded the airplane, they would get rid of the outer jackets. They would then change into a “lovely serving dress”. The mastermind behind this concept was Italian designer Emilio Pucci. Hostesses also sported “rain domes”, a space-age plastic helmet to keep those Sassoon hairstyles and false eyelashes in place. What’s more, New Mexico artist Alexander Girard even colour-coordinated the aircraft, with pastel paint jobs and matching sugar packets!
Pakistan International Airlines, too, hired famous designers to create their uniforms, including French-Italian designer Pierre Cardin, Feroze Cowasji and English designer Sir Hardy Amies. In the 1950s the attire was complete with a white shalwar and dupatta set off by a long green dress with white cuffs and a collar, and a jaunty green cap. In 1966, Cardin designed a new outfit comprising an A-line tunic, slim trouser, and a dupatta that covered the head.
Know where to draw the line, JRD said
Back home, Air India’s hostesses sported sharp-tailored collared dresses with pillbox hats. After nearly two decades, the western attire made way for Kanjeevaram saris, churidars and even ghagra cholis. The then chairman of Air India, JRD Tata closely monitored the grooming of stewardesses. In 1970, while addressing the cabin crew of the airline, Tata had said: “I feel that our hostess and pursers should have some liberty and freedom to their own make-up and drape their saris, with an individuality of their own. But you must not go too far. We must know where to draw the line between the odd, the ridiculous and the attractive….”.
The days of glamour in the skies are nearly gone. Today, the uniforms of flight attendants are more practical and mindful of their comfort. It’s a shift in line with a greater recognition of their role as those in charge of our safety and not just the drinks trolley. Here’s a peek at the era that went by, when the men and women in charge of the cabin dressed to impress.