When Sex Ruled the Skies | Space Age Stewardess Uniforms That Wouldn’t Fly Today

A look at the glamour and chauvinism of aviation’s Space Age era

by Clem Fiell
Aug 9 2018, 7:55am

I don’t remember ever being excited to fly. But, having a Canadian dad from the distant Rocky Mountains of Alberta, I did it a lot. Like many frequent flyers, my life was filled with countless, listlessly sticky airtime hours. Packed into a dowdy grey cabin, we ate equally grey food served by fuddy-duddy folk in polyester slacks and ill-fitting waistcoats.

I dreaded every anodyne minute of it. How could international aviation – that miracle of the modern age – be quite so bland? In just half a century, commercial jet travel sank from glamorous adventure to mundane chore.

My dad’s baby boomer generation and their post-war parents had apparently enjoyed cocktails and cigars as they streaked through the skies. The travellers wore suits, and the hostesses wore very little at all. In retrospect of course, this super-gendered ‘boys club in the clouds’ dynamic looks like a misogynists’ dream.

“Strutting along the aisles of the plane, the hostesses were supposed to partially strip while in the air”

The ‘trolley dolly’ image of the time is now a visual shorthand for the bad old days when only certain servile jobs were deemed suitable for women, and the air stewardess became a canvas upon which the male-dominated industry projected their ideas of what women should wear. It’s no surprise that the first Barbie in work clothes was an air hostess.

A Braniff International stewardess in 1965, wearing Emilio Pucci. Photo: Courtesy of Fiell Archive

But for all the outrageous sexism, designing air stewardess uniforms wasn’t just an exercise in male fetish. The 60s and 70s was when the air hostess became accepted into the Western world’s pantheon of iconic roles. It carried connotations of glamour, sex and freedom, and became a stock aspiration for young girls.

Today, even as a female snowflake millennial, I can’t help but be seduced by the sheer glamour of that golden age of aviation. I find myself looking past the politics of the uniform and basking in their aesthetics – an optimistic fashion era during which space race technology and sartorial poetry joined the mile high club together.

This is a collection of some of the best cabin crew looks from the Mad Men mid-century – and an examination of what they tell us about the times in which they flew.

Braniff Airlines. Designed by Emilio Pucci – 1965: ‘The Air Strip’

Photos: Left: via Alamy / Right: Courtesy of Fiell Archive

In 1965, the now-defunct Braniff Airlines made the bold move to hire radical Italian designer Emilio Pucci to re-imagine their air hostesses. The resultant collection was a boldly futuristic affair, composed of several block-colour layers. This modular system of over and under garments helped the hostess deal with a workplace which could span the Tropics and the Arctic Circle in a day. Strutting along the aisles of the plane, they were supposed to partially strip while in the air.

The uniform was crowned with the iconic “Rain Dome” bubble ­– an obvious homage to astronauts and the space race. Despite their fantastical look, these helmets had a practical purpose – to protect the elaborate hairdos hostesses were required to wear.

Braniff Airlines. Designed by Emilio Pucci – 1967

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

The Air Strip collection sparked a long and lucrative relationship between Pucci and Braniff. Uniforms were designed and then shed readily as fashion accelerated towards the 1970s. These uniforms were as much a publicity exercise as they were practical work clothing ­– and they always reflected the fashion zeitgeist of their year.

As such, in 1967, Pucci cranked up the psychedelic factor. Shedding the multi-layered modernism of Air Strip, he produced these eye-sizzling cat suits in a range of Op-art inspired designs. Of course, the space helmets remained – but this look certainly seems to be inspired not just by outer space, but by a hallucinogenic inner vision.

Olympic Airways. Designed by Pierre Cardin – 1969

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

1969 – the year of the moon landing. Despite not having an aerospace agency themselves, Greece placed itself firmly in the Space Age by commissioning Pierre Cardin for its flag-carrying service, Olympic Airways.

The company was known for achieving levels of gaudy luxury impressive even by late-sixties standards. In first class, hostesses would serenade passengers with regional ditties on a baby grand piano. Even in economy, customers were given gold-plated cups and tableware.

This, however, was a surprisingly chic and minimal direction for the company. A Cardin PVC cape for instance, while being eminently practical on a rain-lashed runway, also screamed ‘Space Odyssey’ sophistication. The white and blue bonnet, meanwhile, gave staff a distinctly robotic look ­– as well as harking back to Greek mythological heroes such as Hermes the winged messenger.

Pacific Southwest Airlines. Ticket Jackets from 1972 – 1976

Photo: Courtesy of SFO Museum

Of all of the American airlines operating in the mid-century (and this is saying a lot) Pacific Southwest pushed misogynistic marketing the furthest.

The adverts alone would be unthinkable today; in 1972 they ran a double-entendre filled television spot, which featured their hostesses performing in a beauty pageant, while seducing the presenter of the ad. They sold their aisle row seats as having a “better view” of their female staff. These smilingly servile models were plastered on every piece of PSA promotional material – including the ticket jackets shown above.

Just as PSA’s moral values were very much of the 1970s, so was its uniform design ethos – hence the abstract orange fascinators and knee-high plastic boots. Such was the flammability of the polyester used in this orange and pink ensemble, hostesses would regularly return home with cigarette holes melted into their hot pants.

Although the National Organisation of Women began protesting against PSA for imposing these kinds of uniforms in 1974, the practice wasn’t halted until the 1980s.

Southwest Airlines of Texas – 1973

Photo: Courtesy of ‘Airline Style’ by Keith Lovegrove, published by Laurence King

A true child of the South, Southwest Airlines of Texas held out the traditional ‘sex sells seats’ ethos of uniform design far longer than most.

On Southwest the go-go boots were high, and the hemlines even higher. The uniform was given a yet more restrictive look with the addition of a thick, plastic and oh-so-seventies white cowboy belt. Tellingly, the hiring director of Hugh Hefner’s own private jet selected the young women who took the role.

As far as CEO Herb Kelleher was concerned, their ideal customer was a hard-drinking, red-blooded, ‘All-American’ man. As such, they were served free whisky and cocktails with suggestive names such as ‘Passion Punch’ and ‘Love Potion’. As is so often the case, patriotic imagery and patriarchal thinking went hand in hand.