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Style in the Aisle

Exhibit Type: 
Temporary Exhibits
Exhibit Status: 
Past Exhibits

If the airline industry had a baby book, 1930 would surely be an important page. As an infant industry, airlines and passengers were taking their first steps together. During that particular year, one of those steps was adding flight attendants to the crew. Boeing Air Transport hired eight young nurses to fly as cabin attendants. The move was prompted by a letter from S. A. Stimpson, a Boeing Air Transport employee, who saw value in hiring young women to “serve food and look out for the passengers’ welfare.” From that point forward, the flight attendant or stewardess or cabin attendant became a fixture in commercial aviation and in popular culture.

Even though their role was primarily one of safety and service, the flight attendant’s image was one of style and allure. This was in part the work of the airlines’ marketing departments and the collective imagination of the public. But it was also a self-fulfilling prophecy as airlines’ policies required that flight attendants be female, young, slim, and single. The flight attendant’s uniform became a symbol of her changing role, although the job itself remained focused on safety and service.

The Museum of Flight’s extensive flight attendant uniform collection made its first public appearance in Style in the Aisle, a temporary exhibition that opened on February 9, 2008. A dozen complete uniforms were featured, dating from the 1930s to the 1980s and representing several different U.S.-based airlines. The progression from conservative uniforms to colorful and flamboyant fashions and back to conservative mirrors the public image of the flight attendant’s role over the 77-year history. The exhibit also featured a variety of artifacts including flight bags, accessories, and memorabilia that help tell the story of the flight attendant alongside glamorous photographs.

That story is a very colorful one. Flight attendants unionized, went on strike, and rallied for the airlines when the airlines most needed it. During all of this, the flight attendant’s uniform changed for rather indirect, if not surprising, reasons. During times when airlines were flying similar aircraft on similar routes (and at comparable prices), the menu and the stewardess uniform became a means of differentiation. Passengers were lured in with fancier food and fashion.

Flight attendants themselves, however, have had more mundane working condition concerns. In 1967, Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine ran an article about the changing role of the stewardess. The article not only covered the story, but also unwittingly conveyed the gender disparity flavor of the time: “Her place as the marketing man’s most consistent winner is not likely to diminish significantly. But the stewardess herself is becoming more concerned about wages and working conditions and less about glamour.”

Today, in the Homeland Security environment, the flight attendant is once again the bastion of safety and “passengers' welfare” takes precedence. With some exceptions, the uniforms have returned to the homogenized business-as-usual look. Visitors got a glimpse of the past glory at Style in the Aisle. The exhibit ran through June 2, 2008, in the Museum’s Lower West Gallery, located in the Great Gallery under the Boeing Model 80-A.