DOORS to manual, hair pinned back, fixed smile and uniforms that sometimes sacrificed comfort for style and once or twice didn’t even quite manage much in the way of style either.
This was, of course, a glamorous age of flight, when female cabin crew were quaintly known as air hostesses, dressed to the nines in uniforms created by top fashion designers and everything, from the pussycat bows on their blouses to their jaunty hats was intended to reflect style, quality and top-flight service.
All many miles from today’s budget airlines’ equally budget day-glo uniforms worn by harassed staff more concerned with whether your hand luggage is too chunky to come on board than if passengers have enough Iranian caviar and free champagne.
Those yearning for days when taking to the skies was just a tad more glamorous than it is now can travel back in time this Sunday, when the pick of cabin crew uniforms from glory days of flight will be showcased – from the severe post-war look to Jackie Kennedy suits and the Eighties frocky horrors possibly designed to get passengers in the summer holiday mood with their eye-watering deckchair stripes.
The uniforms, from British Airways’ Heritage Collection, will be modelled alongside others already on show at the National Museum of Flight as part of its Wheels and Wings event when classic cars and dramatic motorcycle displays on the ground will be accompanied by a sky-high flying display and a reflective look at truly glamorous air travel with a former Concorde pilot.
And it’s the uniforms – from the military style outfits worn by early female cabin crews to those Eighties howlers with shoulder pads which almost needed a ticket of their own to fly – which may well provoke memories among many of days when just going to Turnhouse to watch the planes taking off was a rare and thrilling treat, never mind actually flying.
The uniforms, says BA Heritage Collection curator Paul Jarvis, reflect not only changing fashions, but how commercial flight has evolved down the years.
“Uniforms – especially the early ones – were not very comfortable or particularly feminine,” he says. “But then stewardesses were not employed for their feminity, they were there to do a serious job and the last thing BOAC wanted to do was to project staff as glamorous. It was American flight companies that took a different view.”
Pioneers of their time, those early stewardesses worked wartime flights shuttling VIPs from place to place. They wore uniforms designed by the Queen’s favourite, Hardy Amies, in stiff wool with equally stiff collar and tie. When American airlines in the Fifties decided that attractive, single women in tight outfits were the future, in came figure-skimming skirts, tight jackets and, for some, strict rules on looks, marital status and make up.
Former BA stewardess Bronwyn Mills, 70, recalls wearing her neat Norman Hartnell suit – currently among the Museum of Flight’s uniform collection – with pride in the Sixties when she flew with BOAC from London to New York with John Lennon and Paul McCartney on board.
“You felt like a million dollars wearing it,” she remembers. “It was exciting, you were travelling all around the world, stopping for days in places like Honolulu and Fiji. I loved it.”
BA used designers such as Christian Dior, Roland Klein, who introduced the ‘deck chairs stripes’, and Paul Costelloe to help create a fashionable image.
But sometimes they got it woefully wrong. “In 1968 paper dresses were introduced on the New York to Caribbean flights,” recalls Paul. “It was bonded paper with a flowery design, one size fits all that you cut to length. It was worn with a flower in the hair and little green jewelled shoes. People did smoke on flights at the time and there are examples of people trying to set fire to them.”
Other outfits disintegrated, recalls recently retired BA stewardess Gillian Richards, 57, originally from Trinity. “There was one Baccarat Weatherall uniform that had a blouse with top stitching which was hellish to iron and had to be worn with hideous grey tights. It had fireproofing on it which caused the fabric to rot, so if you stretched up to put something away it would rip from the arm to the waist.”
Sometimes the style may have looked fine on paper but the reality was an eyesore. “We had a summer dress in the mid-Seventies which came in turquoise or pink but we had to wear it with navy blue stockings.”
Stockings, she adds – perhaps fuelling the image of the sexy Pan Am-style stewardess portrayed by Britney Spears in her Toxic video – are chosen by most stewardesses on flights to summer destinations. And while there are rules for everything from how to tie your pussy-cat bow or cravat to the height of your shoes, at least no-one checks on how many staff adhere to the order for flesh coloured or white undies only.
The uniforms, she adds, helped staff exude an aura of authority – not that it washed much with some passengers. “Madonna brought her own chef on board who took over our galley,” adds Gillian.
“We were told not to talk to her and to communicate through one of her staff.”
Other celebrities were fascinating to watch, she adds.
“I was on the flight taking Margaret Thatcher to Hong Kong in 1997, she slept sitting upright for a very short time and then read every single magazine we had on board,” while Princess Margaret wore “the wildest eye shades, like something Dame Edna Everage would wear”.
Her final flight was in March when she had to step into a row between a supermodel and another passenger that had resulted in them screaming across the first-class cabin “like fishwives”.
Most pleasant celebrities, however, were Billy Connolly and David Bowie – both turned out to be ideal passengers and “lovely men,” adds Gillian.
With an airborne career spanning 37 years, Gillian’s uniforms covered everything from nifty pill box ‘Onassis’ style hat to those “horrible grey tights”, and today’s classically styled Julien Macdonald uniform – changing styles that reflect how air travel itself has evolved down the decades.
“We used to travel the world and be away for weeks at a time staying in the best hotels between flights,” she recalls. “We all had fabulous brown skin from lying next to pools getting toasted in the sun.”
Her former colleague Veronica MacLean, 55, from the Grange, spent seven years flying with Air Europe, British Caledonian and BA during the Eighties and agrees today’s stewardesses missed out on a true golden era. “It’s all so rushed now, I don’t think they have time to enjoy the places they visit. I feel a bit sorry for them.”
She recalls flying with BA when the infamous ‘deck chair’ stripes were inflicted on staff. “Worst though was a summer uniform of a white dress with blue and red splodges which was uncomfortable and quite tight so when you reached up the dress went up too,” she adds. “My favourite, though, was the British Caledonian uniform with the kilt and the jabot. I was so proud to wear it.”
• Wheels and Wings at the National Museum of Flight is on Sunday from 10am. Ticket prices vary. Call 0300 123 6789 for details or visit www.nms.ac.uk
A preserve of the rich and famous with all the trimmings
COME fly with me . . . to a time when air travel was mostly the preserve of the well-to-do, in flight snacks – indeed, lavish five-course meals – were included in the ticket price and you didn’t need sunglasses to deflect the day-glo glare from the cabin crew’s uniforms.
Travel first class with BOAC in 1961 and it possibly took half the flight time to wade through the menu, an extravaganza that included chilled Iranian caviar, medallions of Strasbourg foie gras, clear turtle soup aux Xeres, breast of capon mascotte. That’s not all, for there was also sirloin steak, veg and salad trimmings followed by a choice of gateau, ice cream, coffee, cheeses and friandes to choose from.
Should sir or madam require drinks, there was champagne, brandy, liqueurs and, naturally English or American cigarettes.
It all came with a price, however. A 1958 London to New York flight in de-Luxe class cost £173 one way – just short of half the average UK annual salary of £546 and the equivalent today of around £3000.
To make it easy BOAC offered a payment plan for some long-haul flights, with passengers paying a ten per cent deposit with 24 months to make up the balance.