Given the ubiquitous nature of air travel today, it’s hard to believe that in the 1920s the public was terrified of flying. (Americans preferred the train.) But everything changed in 1930, when a young registered nurse from Iowa suggested hiring onboard nurses to reassure the public that flying was safe. The head of Boeing Air Transport enthusiastically agreed, and Ellen Church became the world’s first flight attendant.
The experiment was a tremendous success. Air travel gained popularity, and before long nearly every airline had nurses onboard. Still, the 1930s requirements for female flight attendants were restrictive at best. In addition to being registered nurses, women had to be unmarried, younger than 25 years old, weigh less than 115 pounds and stand less than five feet four inches tall. The first group of attendants earned $125 a month.
By the mid 1960s and 1970s, most Americans had gotten over their fear of flying. Airline-attendant criteria loosened, and those who took the job were young and trendy. Fashion designers moonlighted as uniform designers, adding style and cachet to the profession. Florentine fashion guru Emilio Pucci, known for his vibrant prints, created uniforms for the now-defunct Braniff International Airways, as did Halston. Pierre Balmain designed the looks worn on Singapore Airlines in 1964. Italian couture designer Ettore Bilotta is responsible for the uniforms worn on Emirates Airlines today (red leather gloves included), and Virgin America announced this month that its crew members will wear uniforms designed by Banana Republic come August, including fitted lambskin leather jackets for women and zip-up cardigans with red-and-black bicep bands for men. (Passengers can even purchase pieces from the Utility Chic line from the airline’s in-flight shopping portal.)
Today’s flight-attendant uniforms are crucial to an airline’s brand. Classic ensembles, like those worn on Lufthansa and Emirates, create a feeling of luxury, while more casual uniforms—like the colorful mix-and-match styles on New Zealand Air—reflect an airline’s sense of fun. From playful to professional, these designs go above and beyond.