From Glamour to Liberation: The Evolution of Stewardess Uniforms and Roles
In a bygone era of air travel, the skies were ruled by a group of all-female cabin crew known as “stewardesses.” The 1960s and 1970s marked the zenith of their glamorous and enticing presence in the airline industry, a period when air travel was burgeoning, especially for business purposes.
While societal changes were reshaping the world outside, the business realm was still predominantly considered a man’s domain. In this context, stewardesses donned futuristic, mod, and even risqué attire, serving as a marketing strategy in an industry where ticket prices were uniformly set by the government, leaving airlines vying for competitive advantage.
Strict Standards and Beauty Pageant Interviews
The seemingly glamorous life of a stewardess in the 1960s came with a host of stringent rules and unabashedly sexist standards. Airlines required stewardesses to be young and attractive, aged between 18 and 30. Once a stewardess hit her 30s, she was typically grounded, regardless of her performance.
Marriage and motherhood were disqualifiers, and recruitment ads emphasized that applicants should be thin, petite, and within a specific weight and height range. Airlines turned interviews into beauty pageants, with less than 3% of applicants securing a stewardess position, boasting a lower acceptance rate than prestigious institutions like Yale University.
Fashion Forward: The Evolution of Stewardess Uniforms
Stewardess uniforms underwent a radical transformation during the ’60s and ’70s. At the start of the ’60s, they sported longer skirts paired with jackets adorned with brass buttons, insignia, and epaulets to convey an air of confidence and experience.
However, as street fashion grew increasingly provocative, so did stewardess attire. Skirts shortened, and fitted dresses replaced jackets. In the early ’70s, some airlines even mandated hot pants and go-go boots.
Renowned fashion designers, including Emilio Pucci and Jean Louis, were enlisted to design stewardess uniforms, turning the outfits into style statements that extended beyond the aircraft.
The Dark Side: Stewardesses as Symbols of Sexism
Despite the public’s perception of stewardesses enjoying an exciting career, the reality was starkly different. Stewardesses worked grueling hours for minimal pay and faced rampant sexism and discrimination. Most had a short career span, averaging just a year and a half. With the age cap, there was no long-term prospect or retirement package.
While the airlines touted the opportunity to travel the world, in truth, many stewardesses seldom left the airports they flew to. Appearance was paramount, leading to dismissals if a stewardess deviated from the prescribed standards of beauty.
Breaking Barriers in the ’70s
In 1968, the U.S. government finally acknowledged the discriminatory nature of airline regulations imposed on stewardesses, eliminating age and marriage restrictions and opening doors for a more diverse group of women to join the profession.
The ’70s saw an increase in African-American women joining airlines that had previously rejected their applications due to skin color. It also marked the reintroduction of male stewards. Surprisingly, it was the male stewards-to-be who successfully pushed for regulatory changes within the industry.
The Allure of Sexy Stewardesses in Marketing
As airlines competed for predominantly male business travelers, they leveraged the allure of sexy stewardesses in their marketing campaigns. Advertisements and commercials of the era were rife with sexual innuendos, targeting businessmen with slogans like “Does your wife know you’re flying with us?” and “I’m Cheryl. Fly Me.”
These campaigns played into the mile-high fantasy prevalent among travelers. Stewardesses often had to endure unwanted advances and harassment while wearing sexually provocative uniforms.
The Dawn of Change: Deregulation and Liberation
The turning point for stewardesses came with the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978. With airlines now free to set their own ticket prices, the industry shifted its focus from the attractiveness of stewardesses to cost competition. The term “stewardess” gave way to the more gender-neutral “flight attendant.” Stewardesses rallied for improved pay, better working conditions, and less provocative uniforms. The deregulation of 1978 marked the end of the era of the sexy stewardess.
In retrospect, the ’60s and ’70s symbolized a fascinating and complex period for stewardesses, characterized by glamour, discrimination, evolving fashion, and finally, liberation. These women who once graced the “friendly skies” remain an indelible part of aviation history, a testament to the changing roles and expectations of women in the workforce during a transformative era.