Sarong kebaya worn by Singapore Airlines stewardesses. Since the beginning of commercial air travel, cabin crew uniforms have been influenced by many factors, including war, changing gender roles and dress. Photo: Singapore Airlines
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie

How airline uniforms have evolved through the decades – shaped by war, gender roles, travel times and local tradition

  • Cabin crew uniforms reflected luxury when commercial air travel began, but after World War II took on a military look as more women entered the profession
  • Since then they’ve been influenced by business attire and traditional dress, with Singapore Airlines’ body-hugging sarong kebaya becoming a global brand image

As Hong Kong’s Covid-related travel restrictions trudged into their third year, many once-regular international travellers had almost forgotten what an airport looks like – much less the inside of an aircraft.

Likewise, the subtly varied, yet generally similar, cabin crew uniforms on various airlines that helped distinguish one journey from another seem like long-forgotten echoes of a bygone age.

Along with the vanishing of so many other markers of our former lives that draconian pandemic responses have normalised into numbed, docile acceptance, the very fabric and texture of airline travel – once too familiar for comment – must now be consciously visualised to recall aspects previously taken for granted.

And this burgeoning unfamiliarity has happened after only a few years with virtually no exposure to international travel. How much harder, then, is it to visualise what airline uniforms looked like several decades ago?

An American Airlines flight attendant in uniform, circa 1935. Photo: Getty Images

How did these styles, and the inspirations behind them, steadily evolve along with technological innovations and changed gender roles?

In tandem with these developments, ever-faster journey times, and consequently shorter layovers and turnaround schedules for airline crew, led to uniform style transformations.

When scheduled international air travel began, in the 1930s, this new mode of transport – then the height of luxury given the considerable premium that was paid for speed – echoed equivalent service standards on the ground.

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With no other benchmark to deploy, an airborne equivalent of what the same passengers would have habitually expected on land or sea – a first-class dining carriage on a sleeper train, the lounge bar of a top hotel, or the smoking saloon of a transatlantic ocean liner – was closely replicated, as far as space and weight constraints allowed.

Staff uniforms reflected these general standards, which were also echoed in job titles and other forms of language used to describe the overall experience.

In common with trains and ships, first-generation long-range passenger aircraft, such as those of Imperial Airways, which operated a flying boat service to Hong Kong from England, and the Pan American Airways’ China Clippers, had stewards – and these were almost all men.

A steward serving passengers on Imperial Airways, a British commercial airline that was in operation from 1924 to 1939. Photo: Getty Images

The stewardess role combined those of nursing sister and Universal Aunt; they were principally on board to help the airsick, chaperon the underaged, and assist with “ladies only” tasks. Glamour was not part of the job description.

In the post-war years, increased numbers of stewardesses emerged as a consequence of wartime labour shortages. With so many men off at the battlefront, women became engaged in numerous roles previously closed to them. Skill sets and work routine habits acquired during wartime became peacetime advantages.

Many new recruits had already served in some uniformed capacity, and were therefore accustomed to shift work, temporary accommodation, and armed with “make-do-and-get-on-with-it” attitudes that suited long-distance aircrew.

Uniform designs reflected this mindset; tailored military/nautical influences, versions of peaked or fore-and-aft caps perched at jaunty angles, and dark, serviceable colours – navy blue, in particular – were styles commonplace across the aviation industry.

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From the early 1960s, national airlines began to cultivate distinctive cabin crew uniform styles based on traditional dress. Such innovations helped distinguish new carriers in rapidly emerging consumer markets where – ultimately – getting passengers from A to D via B and C as safely and comfortably as possible was all that mattered.

Sari-clad Air India stewardesses led the way, and other Asian airlines followed suit.

Probably the most well-known remains Singapore Airlines’ uniform, a figure-hugging sarong kebaya-influenced outfit that became a global brand image in its own right. Exotic appeal formed part of the package – even though the Singapore Girl uniform was carefully designed to ensure no cleavage was shown.

By the 90s, sexualised imagery had become unacceptable, and more corporate styles modelled on contemporary business attire were introduced across the airline industry.