From Stewardess to Flight Attendant: 80 Years of Sophistication and Sexism

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As Bruce Handy wrote in Vanity Fair, “It would be only a slight overstatement to say that stewardesses in the 1960s were to glamour what firefighters and cops have more recently been to heroism.” By the mid-60s, 15 of the 38 federally certified airlines had adopted the “early retirement” policies, and airlines played into the modern-woman concept for females (“Marriage is fine! But shouldn’t you see the world first?” posited a 1967 United Airlines ad) and the mile-high fantasy for males. Given that airlines were still not allowed to set their own fares, flight attendants became a valuable marketing tool to one-up the competition. Braniff asked, “Does your wife know you’re flying with us?” Pan Am: “How do you like your stewardesses?” Uniforms became sexier, too, and in 1965, high fashion came to the skies with designer Emilio Pucci’s uniforms for Braniff—think reversible overcoats in absinthe and apricot, and bubble space helmets.

“For this brief, fleeting moment, airline fashion actually leapt to the forefront of fashion itself,” says Hill. “It was kind of a miraculous thing, because they really sort of created this dramatic break between two periods, which is to say, pre-65 and post-65. When that happened, it freed everyone else up to more imaginative directions. So really that’s sort of the biggest shift [in terms of uniforms], mid-1960s. Then everything kind of went over-the-top, and all kinds of social behaviors were swirling around and a lot of them were directly reflected in these uniforms.”

In 1967, TWA accepted fewer than three percent of its applicants—a lower acceptance rate than Harvard.