Wednesday, 4 May 2011


Today’s American airports are jam packed with people whose flights have been cancelled and angry passengers who elbow their way into the boarding line. Passengers pay for their luggage to be checked in and the avoid eye contact as they “greet” passengers at the cabin doors. Believe it or not, there was a magical time when flying was chic. Passengers would dress to the nines to travel and airports were filled with energy and happy smiling helpful staff. Stewardesses dressed in designer uniforms with matching hat, crisp gloves, perfect hair, immaculate make-up, and chic luggage.

In 1930, Ellen Church lent a feminine touch on air travel. She approached Boeing Air Transport with the idea of having nurses on board their flights. Boeing recognized her vision and soon Ellen, and seven other female nurses became the first stewardesses of the air. The ladies were required to wear military style uniforms and their tasks included serving food and drinks to the flight crew as well as loading luggage, refueling the plane and securing passengers wicker chairs into the planes floor with a hammer and nails. Stewardesses had height and weight requirements, hair and makeup rules and mandatory retirement once they married or reached a certain age.

*Photo of Ellen Church with United Airlines

Soon after WW II, airplanes became available for civilian transportation. Flying in the early 1950’s was very expensive, so airlines created luxurious travel services provided by a lovely young stewardesses with a smile.

During the golden age, Hollywood created a screen image to glamorize the career of a stewardess and the luxury of air travel. Teen magazines featured advertisements for Stewardess Colleges, claiming, “For girls who like adventure and travel plus a fine salary.” All of these ideas gave hope to young women who wanted an alternative female career path. With a career as a stewardess, a girl could greet on-coming passengers at lunchtime in New York and say good-bye before dinner in California. It was a glamorous career path that allowed women to see the world for the very first time on their own terms.

But not just any pretty girl off the street could become a stewardess. Each airline created their own training programs and the competition became fierce. In the 1950’s American Airlines founded the first stewardess college in Texas. Training courses included food service, emergency procedures and even airplane construction. A typical classroom would include a full scale mock-up of a plane which allowed them to properly practice pushing their carts between the passenger isles and serving food and drinks in a professionally elegant manner.

*Braniff airlines 1960's cabin

Once the lovely ladies made it through training, they were custom fit for uniforms and taken to the beauty shop for a proper makeover including hair, make-up and nails. Many of the girls wore wigs or falls to ensure the perfect hairstyle and strict regulations were placed on hair color and styles. National Airlines published a Stewardess Flight Manual with instructions on how cosmetics must harmonize with skin tones and they should refrain from repairing make-up in view of passengers.

By the 1960’s airlines began to commission world famous designers to design their uniforms. Valentino created chic cashmere for TWA airlines, Pucci launched a line inspired by space age fashion and with the sexual revolution in the air, uniforms went from dull and boring to short and sassy. Fun vibrant color combinations and patterns were introduced and paired with fishnets, go-go boots and big hair. Planes were designed with multi level dinning rooms and cocktail piano bars. Of course fashion had to advance along with the technology of the aerospace age. Companies like TWA introduced foreign accent flights were stewardesses would dress in costume to reflect styles from around the world. There was an Italian toga uniform, a French inspired gold mini dress, and a pajama uniform to mimic the Manhattan Penthouse Girl. The ladies would work to foreign music and serve foreign newspapers and magazines to create the exotic atmosphere. Another risky attempt to spark customer’s interest happened in 1965; Emilio Pucci showcased his Gemini 4 collection for Braniff Airlines, launching the "air strip" uniforms. Passengers were greeted by a hostess in a gabardine coat, pillbox hat and scarf, and during the flight, she slowly stripped down to a skintight silk turtleneck tunic and matching culottes.

*PSA 1960's advertisement

Well-known airlines created advertising campaigns to capitalize on their fun and sassy ladies of the sky. National Airline designed print advertisements featuring a beautiful young woman with fun flowing text “I’m going to fly you like you’ve never been flown before.” The ladies were professional career girls who traveled the world, yet sex symbols at the same time.

*Advertising for TWA and Braniff airlines

Although the days of cocktail hour around a piano bar, and three course meals served by a stewardess in fishnets and mini skirts are gone, we can still celebrate and recognize a time when flying was glamorous and being a stewardess was every girls’ dream. Hats off to the ladies of the sky!

Tara Tonini is the owner and designer of Sky Girls clothing and accessories. Her line draws inspiration from 1960’s stewardess, airplane architecture and the chic timeless style of the golden age.

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