Karl Lagerfeld took the notion of inflight fashion to lofty new heights earlier this year when he presented his Chanel spring couture collection in Paris – on board a makeshift, 250-seat luxury aircraft. The über-imaginative designer’s haute “hostesses” were clad in the ultimate 1960s fantasy ensembles in various shades of sky blue. None of Lagerfeld’s looks even closely resembled the no-nonsense uniforms that Canadian flight attendants sport today because when it comes to the professional environment of a real-life aircraft, high-fashion statements have to take a back seat. Still, fashion often does figure in the workplace, and as a barometer of our times, it can speak volumes.
Once the trail-blazing Ellen Church was successful in convincing Boeing Air Transport to hire her as a stewardess in 1930, the Iowa-born nurse helped recruit another seven registered nurses for the role. To highlight their professionalism, the Original Eight were given serious uniforms, including wool capes with pockets that were big enough to hold a wrench as well as a screwdriver to secure the passengers’ wicker chairs to the cabin floor. Unquestionably, these early uniforms were all about functionality, sending out a style message that reflected the business of air travel.
Utilitarianism was the operative word a few years later, when Canada’s Lucile Garner Grant and Pat Eccleston joined Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA). The enthusiastic pair was outfitted with a two-button suit designed by Grant and custom-made in English wool gabardine by Vancouver’s foremost tailor. Because TCA at the time stated that a flight attendant had to “remind passengers more of the girl next door rather than a femme fatale,” these were serious business suits that weren’t in the least bit feminine or flirty. Grant soon got to try her hand at fashion design again, creating the next TCA stewardess uniform: a navy-blue skirt suit, a white blouse or a crewneck sweater for cold weather and matching white gloves. Like trusty Girl Guides, they were always well prepared: their stewardess satchels were stocked with the unlikely combination of Alka-Seltzer, cigarettes and matches.
During the war years, Tip Top Tailors designed and manufactured the stewardess uniforms, which took on an increasingly militaristic feel. Practicality reigned supreme, with navy worn in the winter and grey in the summer. True to the necessity of the times, stewardesses also went without stockings since the limited nylon available was needed by the war effort to make parachutes.
Maxine Bredt, now a 92-year-old Hudson, Quebec, resident, spent the war years with the RCA medical corps but then took her talents to TCA, where she worked as a stewardess from 1946 to 1949. She fondly remembers a nursing mother she attended to on one flight. Bredt got off the airplane in Iceland, where, as the passengers and crew were disembarking, her cap was blown across the tarmac by high winds. “The young mother continued to nurse her baby while generously chasing after the runaway cap!” Bredt says. She still has that very cap – a cherished reminder of her days aboard TCA, when she would comfort white-knuckle flyers with tea and cookies through bouts of bad weather.
Over the next few years, as air travel became more commonplace, the call for stewardesses increased, and during the optimistic 1950s, an upbeat, polished image became increasingly important. There was never a shortage of attractive, svelte women vying for these jobs, though it may not always have been a comfy gig to get. As Dorothy Rye Horton, a TCA flight attendant from 1954 to 1955, once said, “We were instructed to wear a girdle at all times.” The girls had to look trim in their new getups: a cardigan-style tunic in dark blue, with the option of a lighter blue for the summer, and a straight skirt.
The ’60s brought along with it an exciting new fashion-consciousness. Italian designer Emilio Pucci, blending pop with a healthy dose of playfulness, dreamed up a plastic bubble helmet to help protect the hairdos of stewardesses on windy days. It was a futuristic, space-age look that spoke of the design modernity that was blossoming everywhere.
In 1964, TCA – which would become Air Canada in 1965 – commissioned the Paris-trained Michel Robichaud to elevate the style of its 700 stewardesses. (One of Montreal’s leading couturiers, he’d designed for the likes of Princess Grace and Elizabeth Taylor.) With an emphasis on simple elegance, the charcoal green outfits – including an A-line skirt for freedom of movement – were made of a wool-blend fabric that, in a stroke of genius, was treated to prevent static electricity. The only jewellery was a slim Air Canada insignia on the hat and a small collar brooch at the neck, both the creation of Brault of Montreal, whose client list included the Queen Mother. The airline described the chic look as having “the simple elegance of a girl dressed for a dinner date.”
Feminism was on the rise by the end of the ’60s, and this liberated age brought with it a fashion-forward sensibility. Vibrant colour was injected into the female flight attendant’s wardrobe, with a double-breasted Jet Red coat for winter and a lightweight summer raincoat in Galaxy Blue. The A-line “minidresses” (they were really just above the knee) had a Pierre Cardin/Courrèges feel and came in red and blue as well as in basic Sonic White.
In 1973, Air Canada – by now an equal-opportunity employer – set out to celebrate individuality even further, offering flight attendants a mix-and-match approach to dressing. A 51-piece ensemble, in red, blue, white, brown and beige (allowing for a whopping 300 different style combinations) was designed by Montreal couturier Léo Chevalier. “It always seemed unfair for several thousand girls to be limited to wearing a single type of garment,” he said at the time. The playful spirit of the ’70s was in full force, and with the arrival of Boeing 747s at Air Canada, some flight attendants really got to indulge in full-out glam, changing into silky bell-bottoms, jackets and sashes, in pale pink or burgundy, and then inviting first-class passengers to the upper deck for champagne, cocktails, caviar and even a dance. By 1978, the uniform returned to a more streamlined style, with more male flight attendants getting onboard.
When Air Canada launched its current uniform in 2004, designer Debbie Shuchat had been inspired by a retro-couture look. It’s also fun to imagine what flight attendant outfits might look like going forward. Because flight attendants regularly find themselves in disparate climate zones, what about truly seasonless, temperature-controlled ensembles? Or, with weight restrictions becoming more of an issue, what about a single, self-cleaning uniform that converts into multiple styles and is made with new textiles that could change texture and colour? For those who love musing about the future, the fantasies abound when it comes to inflight fashion. Just ask Karl Lagerfeld.