High Fashion – stewardess chic in the late 1960s

Pucci for Braniff, late 1960s

Pucci for Braniff, late 1960s

I’ve never been a good air traveler and it’s even worse now that steerage class has abandoned the last dregs of comfort and luxury in the post 9/11 world. In the late 1960s however, airliners went out of their way to vie for passengers. As everyone had similar aircraft, and meal service and fares were regulated, airlines had to rely upon gimmicks, including stewardess uniforms, to win their clients. I ran across this interesting article from Flight International magazine archives from December 26, 1968, that talks about how stewardess uniforms helped to create the unique flying experience.

“Dressing for success is an expensive business. United Air Lines recently spent $3 million and American Airlines $1 million on new uniforms. Each Mohawk Airlines outfit costs $350. The costs reflect the big names behind the designs. United’s are by Jean Louis and Braniff’s by Emilio Pucci. TWA have Balmain of Paris and, more recently, Elisa Daggs. National have Oleg Cassini and William Trevere. The result is an airborne fashion show of apple-green and pink, chiffon, vinyl and paper, which make the traditional skirt, blouse and jacket look somewhat old-fashioned – and that’s a bad thing in the airline business.

Elisa Daggs "Foreign Accent" paper dresses for TWA, 1968, left to right: Italy, Olde England, Manhattan Penthouse, France

Elisa Daggs “Foreign Accent” paper dresses for TWA, 1968, left to right: Italy, England, Manhattan, France

Designing new uniforms is not left to inspiration alone when the response is so very important. To suggest that raising hemlines will raise load factors would be an imprecise and risky pronouncement on matters which airline executives know are important enough to leave to psychologists. American Airlines’ five-month $50,000 survey showed that men in the 30-50 age group actually disliked a too-short skirt, and most women agreed… The new American hemlines are no more than three inches above the knee.

In attacking boredom the stewardess is changing from a waitress to a character actress. TWA have launched a massive campaign to undomesticate domestic air travel.” On their longer routes they have introduced four “Foreign Accent” flights; Italian, French, Olde English and Manhattan Penthouse… TWA’s Los Angeles information representative Laird Kelly described the Olde English service to me. “Passengers are greeted at the airport boarding lounges with Union Jacks and taped British music. Their stewardesses wear a be-ruffed grey flannel, very short, serving-wench outfit made of paper. Passenger-seat headrest covers bear a light blue British diplomatic seal on red. Selected British newspapers include The Times.” The stewardesses are the ones who must make it all come true… and one passenger assured me he had had “a jolly good time.” TWA have their finger on the public pulse when they describe the Foreign Accent flights as “the end of routine air travel.” Passengers do not know what “country” they will be flying with until they reach the airport.

The Gay Nineties meets the Space Age aboard Golden Nugget service on Alaska Airlines, c. 1968

The gay 90s meets the space age aboard Alaska Airlines’ Golden Nugget service, c. 1968

Perhaps the biggest, most flamboyant spectacle of all is an Alaska Airlines’ service from Alaska to Seattle. Advertised as “Golden Nugget” flights, they aim to reproduce the atmosphere of the Klondike and the Gold Rush in the “gay nineties.” Genuine saloon swing doors open the way to the jet where free tap beer is served in an interior of red and gold. There is tinkly ragtime music. Big tufted velvet seats and red velvet curtains with gold braid adorn the cabin. If that is not enougn, the stewardesses are dressed in period costumes of red velvet flowing skirts, with their hair in buns.”

If you want to see more great 1960s stewardess uniforms check out this online collection.

Buttoning it up right

There are several theories as to why men and women’s clothes are buttoned on opposite sides. I subscribe to the theory that mens’ buttons are on the wearer’s right side because men have tended to dress themselves over the centuries whereas women had help in getting dressed by a maid, mother, husband, or sister, and so the buttons are placed to make it easier for someone else to use. In fact, buttons on women’s outfits were rare until the 1870s, hooks and eyes were more commonly used, and before that, straight pins.

Last weekend I acquired a women’s Royal Canadian Air Force jacket from 1942 for the collection. I don’t normally acquire partial uniforms without provenance, but this piece intrigued me. Founded in July 1941 as the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF) their name was changed to the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division in February 1942. Women in this branch were commonly referred to as WDs. They were disbanded in December 1946.

The woman on the far left is the only WD with left hand buttoning and the WD on the far right has fake pockets.

What I thought was  interesting about this jacket was that it buttoned like a man’s, and the pockets are fake. I am by no means a Canadian military uniform historian, but I thought those features made the jacket worthy of acquiring for the collection. In researching this combination of men’s buttoning and fake pockets I came across this image that showed several versions for women’s uniforms, including real and fake pockets, and left and right hand buttoning. All of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) uniforms in the collection have the traditional left hand side buttoning for women, so I don’t know if this is an air force thing or what the explanation is – anybody know?