SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (KPIX 5) — If a picture tells a thousand words, then a piece of clothing, something so personal and intimate, can speak the truth about a lifetime and beyond. Such is the case of a new exhibit at San Francisco International Airport.
“Fashion in Flight” displays female flight attendant uniforms from nearly every era of modern day air travel. Each ensemble represents the times in which it was worn, and the women who wore them. No doubt about it, this was work wear for a tough job.
Nearly a century ago, commercial air travel was just getting off the ground, and cabins in planes were not pressurized. Passengers often got air sick and anxious. So the first female flight attendants were nurses and their uniforms reflected the job, taking the look of the nursing profession at that time.
Eventually, that changed but by the 1930’s women dominated the profession even though men had previously done the job. World War II brought a military look to flight fashion. The 60s ushered in the psychedelic era. Each new design represented an opportunity for the airlines themselves to brand their travel products.
The flight attendant, or “stewardess” uniforms also proved to be an irresistible opportunity for countless designers to showcase their talent. Pucci, Dior, Oleg Cassini, Balenciaga, Halston and Ralph Lauren all threw their “designer hats” into the ring and came up with some really beautiful uniforms.
“Fashion in Flight” showcases all these design changes and more. But it also, a bit unintentionally perhaps, displays a kind of hidden history, the struggle for civil rights, labor equality and social justice.
“It was a very different time and some of the restrictions would really raise eyebrows today,” said SFO Museum Assistant Director John Hill.
Hill and his team amassed hundreds of uniform pieces, everything from dresses to bags to shoes and gloves, even an out-of-this-world, Pucci-designed plastic rain helmet. But beyond the crazy colors and tailored wool suits, when you view all the pieces together, one thing really stands out. All of the uniforms all small. Really small.
“There were height restrictions, some were between five-two and five-foot-four,” explained Hill. ” There was very careful scrutiny on the size and weight of the individuals wearing these uniforms. There were also marital status restrictions. You had to be single. You had to be childless.”
In other words, stewardesses had to be young, thin, beautiful and single.
Those requirements took years of EEOC complaints, and lawsuits, to resolve. The late 1960s saw the job open up to women of color and by the 1980s flight attendants could get married. In the 1990s, weight restrictions were relaxed.
It was a decades-long struggle – one many former flight attendants and their supporters are proud of. Many donated uniforms to be displayed at the museum.
“There are quite a few groups, volunteer groups of former airlines,” explained Hill. “Clipped Wings is one at TWA. They donated an enormous amount of material to our collection, including a whole run of TWA’s uniforms.”
United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and private collectors all contributed to the museum’s own extensive private collection. It will be on display for free at SFO’s International Terminal through January 8, 2017. No need to go through security to see it.