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What They Wore: Flight Attendant Uniforms Past and Present

Image: Cathay Pacific modern uniform

Too sexy? That's the complaint made by the union representing Cathay Pacific's flight attendants. Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Since 1930, when efficient, caped nurses became the first stewardesses, it's been a tradition for flight attendants to look great while making sure airline customers are comfortable and safe.

The role of the flight attendant hasn't really changed, but cabin crew outfits certainly have. Here's a look at some of the chic, fashionable and intriguing uniforms that have been spotted in the skies.

In 1930, Ellen Church became the first airline stewardess after convincing Boeing Air Transport (now United Airlines) that the presence of onboard nurses would go a long way in helping early passengers overcome their fear of flying.

Seven other registered nurses soon joined Church's team, gathering to pose for this photo wearing uniforms made of dark green wool, with matching green and gray wool capes.

Image: Original eight stewardesses with Model 80A.
Original eight stewardesses with Model 80A. Courtesy the Boeing Company Archives

"Back in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s all stewardess uniforms looked alike," said Cliff Muskiet, curator of Uniform Freak, an online museum of flight attendant uniforms. The only colors used were navy blue, dark green and brown for winter uniforms and light blue, light green and beige for summer uniforms, said Muskiet.

It gave stewardesses "a very conservative look," he said. During the mid-to-late 1960s, however, airlines began turning to fashion designers and ad agencies to cultivate a hipper, sexier image for flight attendants. In 1966, Braniff International Airways crew members would be hard to miss wearing this eye-catching, geometric print dress with matching tights by Italian designer Emilio Pucci.

Image: A Braniff 1966 Pucci uniform.
A Braniff 1966 Pucci uniform. From the collection of Cliff Muskiet www.uniformfreak.com

A titillating print and TV advertising campaign for Braniff in 1965 was called the "Air Strip" and featured a Pucci-designed uniform with several layers that could be removed during a flight.

"The TV commercial depicted a stewardess performing an airborne striptease," said Victoria Vantoch, author of "The Jet Sex—Airlines Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon."

"Braniff turned the stewardess into a patently sexual icon and other airlines soon followed," she said.

In the mid-1960s Pucci also created an unusual clear plastic bubble helmet as part of the uniform line designed for Dallas-based Braniff. The helmets weren't intended to be worn into space, but rather to protect a flight attendant's hairdo if she needed to walk across a windy tarmac.

According to Seattle's Museum of Flight, in the early 1970s American artist and designer Mario Armond Zamparelli was asked by business magnate and aviator Howard Hughes to create new flight attendant uniforms for Hughes Airwest. A memorable Airwest outfit was this Sundance Yellow princess-line knit dress, which had a matching zippered jacket. When going outdoors, flight attendants could add a hooded cape or a princess-line coat.

Image: Hughes Airwest uniform
The Hughes Airwest 1972–1977 uniform. Ted Huetter, Museum of Flight Seattle/Courtesy Cliff Muskiet www.uniformfreak.com

"Hot pants and short dresses with hot pants underneath were a common look in the 1960s and '70s, and Continental, PSA and Southwest Airlines all had uniforms featuring that style," said Muskiet.

"In those years, the stewardess was used to attract male passengers and hot pants were part of the plan," he said.

Image: In the 1960s and '70s, hotpants were common, as seen in this Continental uniform.
In the 1960s and '70s, hotpants were common, as seen in this Continental uniform. Courtesy Cliff Muskiet www.uniformfreak.com

Compared with the hot pants-themed uniforms some airlines required their flight attendants to wear during the '60s and '70s, these Cathay Pacific uniforms, launched in July 2011, appear to be quite tame. But the union representing the airline's flight attendants recently complained the outfits were "too sexy."

In a statement, Cathay Pacific said it has made some modifications to the uniform to address concerns about the length of the blouse and the tightness of the skirt, and crew members "are welcome to exchange their uniform any time if they feel the fit is not right."

Although many of the older airlines are long gone, some of the classic airlines are looking to return to the skies, such as PEOPLExpress.

In May 2014, a group trying to bring back Eastern Air Lines, the iconic Miami-based carrier that operated from the 1920s until 1991, held a contest to choose a designer for the uniforms crew members might wear when the airline returns to the skies. The winner was Miami-based designer Lisu Vega, whose collection includes a variety of chic, navy and teal outfits with matching hats and luggage.

Image: Eastern Air Lines uniform
The Eastern Air Lines uniform designed by Lisu Vega. Simon Soong / Courtesy Lisu Vega