Style

Finally! Female flight attendants win right to wear pants after 2-year battle

Flight attendants: They're more than just the ladies and gentlemen who fetch your favorite mid-air beverage — they actually have a history spanning more than 85 years (starting with a group of eight nurses in 1930).

While the presence of flight attendants hasn’t changed, the emphasis on what they're wearing has come to the forefront. British Airways recently came under fire for taking a full two years before finally allowing their female employees the option to wear pants. Under previous rules, women on "mixed fleet" crews were required to wear a skirt unless there were medical or religious exemptions. The crew's union, Unite, fought for the choice saying that trousers are more practical, warm and protective in colder months.

Getty Images
British Airways crew with actor Orlando Bloom at an event for the company.

When asked, a BA spokesperson shared the following statement with us:

“When a new cabin crew fleet was created in 2010, we took the opportunity to make certain adjustments to the uniform for this 'Mixed Fleet' group. This included the addition of a hat for female crew members and skirts as standard. British Airways' Ambassadors (a group who are selected for promotional activities) also wear this uniform.”

Now, however:

“Our Mixed Fleet team wear the 'ambassador'​ British Airways uniform. While trousers are not a standard part of this uniform, colleagues wishing to wear them can request this through their manager.”

Other airlines, like Delta, have taken a more fashion-forward approach to their company dress code. This past April, WWD reported that the airline carrier inked a pricey deal with designer Zac Posen to help the company re-imagine uniforms for more than 30,000 employees.

Delta Air Lines
The current uniforms for Delta Air Line crew members, designed by Richard Tyler.

“It is critical for our design partner to fully understand our employee group and the jobs they perform,” said Catherine Sirna, a spokeswoman for Delta Air Lines. “We ensure the designers take this into consideration with their initial design and also ensure the total collection has something for everyone. Employee feedback is also critical in this area. For example, in the past few years we’ve made minor changes to our signature red dress based on specific employee feedback.”

Posen’s new designs will be unveiled internationally in 2018. Currently, Delta crew members don uniforms designed by Richard Tyler. “Its classic, professional style still receives customer compliments many years later,” added Sirna. “Our [employees] have the option of suiting (pants/skirts/blazer), dresses and outerwear, along with complementing accessories such as ties and scarves.”

Delta Air Lines
Angela, a Delta Air Lines flight attendant, at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. She is wearing a current uniform for the airline, before designer Zac Posen unveils his take on the clothes.

Amirh McFarlane, a United Airlines flight attendant based out of Newark, New Jersey, said she's a fan of wearing a skirt as part of her uniform. “When your uniform fits properly and you have your heels on it gives you a certain pizzazz,” she said. “Overall, [the airline] industry is predominantly women. Some people might consider wearing a dress or skirt sexist, but that’s the part I like best. [At my previous] office jobs, I wore both options daily, so to me, it’s not an outdated policy.”

In 2013, American Airlines announced their plans to revamp employee uniforms due out later this year. Casey Norton, director of corporate communications, shared that the new designs have been well-received providing a number of options for various jobs, body shapes, religious requirements, and weather conditions. “In January 2016, more than 400 pilots, flight attendants, premium customer services and airport customer service agents set out on an eight-week experiment: [to] test our new uniform prototypes and tell the company what worked and what didn’t. Mission accomplished,” he said.

American Airlines

Other notable fashion collaborations include Andy and Kate Spade for (the now defunct) Song Airlines, Prabal Gurung for All Nippon, and Banana Republic for Virgin America.

“Since the golden age of jet–setting in the 1960s, in–flight fashion has often been elusive in the U.S., but we hope to bring a little of it back to the skies with these new designs,” said Luanne Calvert, vice president of marketing at Virgin America. “Even as a young airline just celebrating its eighth year in operations, continued investment in our design and overall guest experience is a priority for us. These new uniforms really represent the next stage of evolution of in–flight fashion, incredibly practical and designed for the modern work world — but with a nod back to the stylish golden age of air travel.”

  • Slideshow Photos

    Museum of Flight Collection/PM N

    Style in the skies

    Flight attendant fashion over the years, from hot pants and go-go boots to more sophisticated and glamorous looks.

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    Early uniforms

    Designed by Fiolel Colangelo, this is the second generation of the early Boeing/United Air Lines uniforms circa 1933-1936. In the years 1935 and 1936, a “United Air Lines” armband was worn by cabin attendants on the left arm to celebrate the birth of the airline from the union of four smaller carriers. The photo is part of the temporary "Style in the Aisle" exhibit at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Wash., which runs through May 30, 2011.

    The Museum of Flight Collection / The Museum of Flight Collection
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    Seasonal look

    Delta flight attendants model the 1940-42 summer uniform, left, and winter uniform as they pose with a DC-3 plane in September 1941.

    Delta Air Lines / Delta Air Lines
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    Delta style

    A group of flight attendants model the Delta winter uniform worn between 1965 and 1968.

    Delta Air Lines / Delta Air Lines
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    Futuristic flight attendants

    Fashion designer Oleg Cassini created a futuristic look for Air West flight attendants during the carrier's brief existence prior to its purchase by Howard Hughes. The basic uniform, worn 1968-1971, consisted of a textured polyester dress and a jacket with an unconventional side-buttoning configuration. The pieces came in a selection of bright, solid colors inspired by the natural colors found at Air West's destinations, including fern green, Pacific blue and canyon red.

    The Museum of Flight Collection / The Museum of Flight Collection
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    Aloha spirit

    In this United Airlines publicity shot, a stewardess serves a passenger. The photo is believed to have been taken during the 1970s on a Hawaii flight, given the clothing.

    United Airlines via The Museum of Flight / United Airlines via The Museum of Flight
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    Style Down Under

    Flight attendants for Qantas Airways wear uniforms designed by Emil Pucci between 1974 and 1985. In 1974, Qantas made history by evacuating 673 passengers from Darwin, Australia, in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy, setting a world record for the most passengers on one flight.

    Qantas Airways via The Museum of Flight / Qantas Airways via The Museum of Flight
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    Cabin service

    A Delta flight attendant, wearing the 1968-1970 uniform, serves alcohol to passengers.

    Delta Air Lines / Delta Air Lines
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    All-American image

    Leonard Fisher sought to invoke a pioneering spirit with his “American Field Flowers Collection” for American Airlines circa 1971-74. The uniform consisted of a solid-color dress with either short sleeves or a shoulder-covering yoke across the top. The dress came in a choice of red, white or blue with contrasting colors along the border. A matching jacket could also be worn over the dress. Perhaps the most memorable component of this uniform was a flower-print smock worn over the dress during in-flight meal service. The frilly, white garment was decorated with prints of poppies, cornflowers, daisies and sprigs of wheat. The apron's design evoked the image of resilient frontier women carving a life for themselves in the American West.

    American Airlines C.R.Smith Museum via The Museum of Flight Collection / American Airlines C.R.Smith Museum via The Museum of Flight Collection
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    A new airline

    This 1971 photo shows almost all the Southwest Airlines flight attendants at the time. The airline's uniforms for its first air hostesses, as flight attendants were called at the time, included hot pants and were introduced on June 18, 1971.

    Southwest Airlines / Southwest Airlines
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    Service with a smile

    A flight attendant models a Pacific Southwest Airlines uniform circa 1973. The discount airline, also known as PSA, was known for the iconic smile painted on the nose of its airplanes and operated from 1949 to 1988.

    Pacific Southwest Airlines via The Museum of Flight / Pacific Southwest Airlines via The Museum of Flight
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    When plaid was fashionable

    A United Airlines stewardess is seen in the early 1970s in this Boeing 747 publicity shot. In 2010, United and Continental decided to join forces in a deal that will give the new airline United's name with Continental's logo.

    The Museum Of Flight Collection / The Museum Of Flight Collection
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    A new look

    In the early 1970s, American artist and designer Mario Armond Zamparelli was contracted by Howard Hughes to create a new corporate image, as well as flight attendant uniforms, for Hughes’ recently acquired airline, Hughes Airwest.

    The Museum of Flight Collection / The Museum of Flight Collection
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    A wholesome image

    A Delta flight attendant uniform, circa 1979-1983.

    Delta Air Lines / Delta Air Lines
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    Crew coordination

    Qantas Airways flight attendants model uniforms designed by Emil Pucci. The crew wore the uniforms between 1974 and 1985.

    Qantas Airways via The Museum of Flight / Qantas Airways via The Museum of Flight
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    Helpful attendants

    A Southwest Airlines flight attendant takes beverage orders from passengers circa 2000. In 1999, Southwest flight attendants were named the most helpful, according to a J.D. Power and Associates report.

    Southwest Airlines / Southwest Airlines
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    Ladies in red

    Delta Air Lines flight attendants pose in the Richard Tyler-designed uniforms. The uniforms, inaugurated in 2006 and still in use today, include a signature red wrap dress.

    Delta Air Lines / Delta Air Lines
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    Sophistication in the skies

    Delta flight attendant Faye Brown wears a Richard Tyler-designed uniform. The uniforms are meant to evoke a time when air travel was "glamorous and sophisticated," according to Tyler.

    Delta Air Lines / Delta Air Lines

But, do flight attendants actually enjoy wearing their uniforms? Juliette Bush, former Emirates employee based in Dubai said she does.

“I don’t have to think about what I wear [to work],” she shared. “I just wake up and put my specified clothing on — no thinking of what the weather will be like, what colors go with what, what is in or what is not. It's very simple and it makes my life so much easier!”

However, Bush does comment that life in a uniform has its limitations. “Everything has to be uniformed from your hair to nails to shoes.”

The one area to shine? Your personality. “Although we have the same uniform, how you make the customers feel is what leaves a lasting impression,” said Bush.

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