Virgin Atlantic airline built its reputation on racy, embodied by flight attendants in blood-red lipstick and matching skirted suits with hourglass silhouettes. But as of March, the carrier has eased its in-flight dress code, allowing female flight attendants to wear pants and go without mandated makeup for the first time.
“It’s 2019 and time to give adults the ability to define what’s professional, and it may not be bright red lipstick,” says Shawn Kathleen, a former flight attendant and founder of Instagram account Passenger Shaming (which chronicles plane passenger misdeeds). “Trousers are so much more comfortable, especially on a long flight,” she adds.
With the wardrobe change, Virgin is leading the trend to inclusion—of an expanding range of shapes, sizes, and styles—as airlines around the world like Turkish Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and others, tinker with how flight attendants dress (specifically female flight attendants, as the suiting prescribed for men is generally, well, more uniform).
A brief history of uniforms
Part armor, part public relations, airline uniforms have shadowed women’s fashion trends with a dash of military élan for much of the 20th century.
“Beginning with combinations of benevolence and authority, they were first made to resemble nurse’s attire and then took on more militaristic appearances with cuff ranks and overseas caps,” explains John H. Hill, assistant director and curator-in-charge of aviation at the SFO Museum at San Francisco International Airport. There, he curated “Fashion in Flight: A History of Airline Uniform Design,” a 2014 exhibition that showcased female flight attendant looks dating from the 1930s onward.
Two-piece suits that balanced functionalism and style gave way, in the booming post–World War II era, to a fashion approach epitomized by Emilio Pucci’s collection for the now obsolete U.S. airline Braniff International in the 1960s. It featured shift dresses with psychedelic rainbow prints and geometric-patterned leggings. Vivienne Westwood’s nipped-waist jackets in bold red for Virgin Atlantic, introduced in 2014, continues that strain of fashion-forward uniform design.
“In the late 1960s and 1970s, the airlines used bright colors—yellow, red, orange, green, blue, purple, white—for their uniforms and different psychedelic prints such as stripes, flowers, and dots,” says Cliff Muskiet, a flight attendant for KLM. Muskiet has a collection of over 1,500 vintage uniforms from 556 airlines, which he publishes online at UniformFreak.com. “Everything was possible. I really miss that. Today most airlines use dark blue outfits with plain white blouses and I find that so very boring.”
The women’s movement clearly had an impact on the profession as looks went from plaything hot pants and sexpot miniskirts in the 1960s and ’70s to career-ish, C-suite suits of the ’80s with wide shouldered jackets and long skirts.
“Through all these trends, the uniform also had to project the corporate identity of the wearer’s employer, which was often done with color as an identifier in addition to the insignia and company monogramming,” Hill says. “More design demands with respect to multiple functions have been placed on the airline uniform than perhaps any other garment type.”
Localists vs. globalists
Today, many carriers use clothing to express cultural identity, including Air New Zealand, for which Kiwi designer Trelise Cooper created graphic botanical prints (abstracts of native plants) on bright green or purple fabrics for the attendants’ dresses and blouses. The airline aims to update the look in 2021, while also reflecting New Zealand cultural influence, and is currently running a design competition to, according to the company, “remain fresh.”
Similarly, Hawaiian Airlines overhauled its flight wardrobe in 2016, commissioning pattern-happy Hawaiian designer Sig Zane to create its organic-inspired prints, featuring lehua blossom designs and bamboo stamps often used in traditional kapa cloth. They’re incorporated in uniform blouses and shirts, with sashes in purple and aquamarine that serve to animate more traditional airline-designed suiting.
Airlines travel the world, but contemporary uniforms often express hometown or national pride. Alaska Airlines, with its corporate headquarters and main hub in Seattle, commissioned Seattle designer Luly Yang to do its collection, debuting in the air in early 2020. Traditional navy and gray pieces will be offset with pops of bright green and turquoise in neck scarves, while a wrap dress with a wave of white down the front flattered all figures in the recent runway show for employees and press.
Then there are the global players going for worldly looks. Milanese haute couturier Ettore Bilotta had designed uniforms for Etihad and Alitalia before delivering a new collection to Turkish Airlines last year. Just as the Istanbul-based carrier prepared to move into the gleaming, recently debuted Istanbul airport, the looks rolled out in dark red and slate gray, in solids or diamond patterns, with shapely designs that flow rather than constrict. Coordinating handbags, scarves, and hats make the crew the best-dressed fliers on the planes.
In contrast, U.S. carriers have long specified more casual attire for its flight attendants. Take, for instance, Southwest Airlines’s khaki shorts, replaced in 2017 by shorts and dresses in the carrier’s signature orange and blue that were designed by the employees themselves—versus foreign airlines such as Singapore Airlines, where female flight attendants or “Singapore Girls” wear colorfully patterned sarong kebayas.
American legacy carriers lean toward professional looks that fit a corporate image. Delta Air Lines updated its boarding order chart by color last fall to align with the purple hue, called “Passport Plum,” of its Zac Posen uniforms. The purple boarding group, referring to the color of the boarding pass, gets on the plane first.
Testing on the fly
Nothing about airline wardrobe changes is off the cuff. American Airlines is currently field-testing a new look—in the same style of today’s suits but in a new fabric—that won’t roll out until 2020, allowing more than a year to assess fit, sizing, zipper function, the lay of the collar, climate-versatility, and functionalism. United Airlines is also testing its new Tracy Reese–designed uniforms—via 35 focus groups and 17,000 survey responses—that incorporate color accents to complement its navy or “Rhapsody Blue” suits.
As with most things aviation related, even obsolete uniforms represent a security threat. To prevent pretenders from donning a cast-off flight attendant uniform and faking it through an airport, most airlines destroy or upcycle old outfits. Delta recently donated 350,000 pounds of retired fabric to Looptworks, which upcycles textiles, in this case into totes, backpacks, and more. When KLM changed its uniforms to new looks from Dutch couturier Mart Visser in 2010, it donated the newly obsolete fabric to a carpet company to create zero-waste, biodegradable floor coverings.
The future is functional
For those who wear the looks, modern flight apparel evokes mixed feelings.
“For me, it was projecting that professional appearance for the passenger,” Kathleen says. “If the crew looks sloppy, that diminishes passenger confidence. You’re projecting a professional image, but my favorite part of the day was getting to the hotel and taking that uniform off within 30 seconds of walking into the room.”
For Virgin Atlantic, relaxing rules on makeup and adding pants to female flight attendant wardrobes foreshadowed the airline’s announcement in early April that it was dumping the blond pinup-inspired maiden painted onto the front of its aircraft in favor of more ethnically diverse and also male models.
Most observers see the long arc of in-flight uniform history bending away from gender stereotypes, while maintaining a modicum of dash that allows employees to express confidence through style.
“Something I do notice is that quite some airlines in Europe are reintroducing the hat as part of their new uniform,” says collector Muskiet. “Bring back the glamour! In Russia there are a lot of airlines with beautiful uniforms, most of them have a hat. I hope more airlines will follow.”