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Right now I have 1,271 uniforms squeezed into my three-bedroom flat in Amsterdam, although none of them is on display. I’m very clever at using my space, so they are hidden in various wardrobes and plastic containers under the bed.
I was five when I became obsessed with flying. I fell asleep on a flight from New York to Amsterdam and was so upset that I had missed everything that I started to draw airplanes and cut pictures out of magazines. By the time I was a teenager, I spent my spare time visiting airline offices in Holland, collecting timetables, postcards or anything else they would give me.
Whenever anybody I knew went travelling, I bugged them to bring back items from the flight. I hoarded everything, from baggage labels to safety cards to meal trays. Later, I got a job cleaning planes at the airport, so my collection grew quickly. My bedroom walls were covered in pictures of aircraft rather than pop stars.
My mother had a friend who was a part-time stewardess, and one day I received a package in the post from her. I opened it up and found a KLM uniform from the early 1970s. I was really excited and started to write a few letters to airlines, asking if they would give me some more uniforms for my collection.
It was difficult because I had to write by hand – even trying really hard, my collection only grew to four, including one from British Airways. In 1987, I started flying myself as an attendant with KLM but I’d stopped collecting by that point and was just concentrating on my work.
Five years later, I was on a stopover in Ghana and got bored with being in the hotel. I decided to go to the airport and while I was there I persuaded one of the local airlines to give me a uniform to relaunch my collection. That was the day it really all started for me. There was no internet, so I wrote more letters and visited airlines wherever I landed.
At first I might get one reply for every 10 letters but after a while the internet made it easier. I launched my own website to show off the collection and airlines started contacting me – they wanted to have their uniforms on show too. I’ve never had to pay for a piece, apart from a couple of items on eBay.
It’s fascinating how uniforms have changed. In the 1950s, nearly all of them were cut in a military style, with long skirts and dark colours. You can see this with American Airlines and KLM. They were individually tailored – nothing like the dull, mass-produced clothes that attendants have to wear now. I don’t collect male uniforms because they are quite boring.
My favourite era is the late 1960s and early 1970s, when US airlines started to realise that sex sells – stewardesses began to wear bright colours, miniskirts and even hot pants. A lot of attendants would not put up with that today.
Hats and scarves are the icing on the cake. Pan Am stewardesses always had interesting headwear, as do Emirates and Etihad today. I once spotted an American Airlines attendant at Dallas airport who was wearing a scarf I liked. It took me a while but I persuaded her to let me have it.
If I had to choose a favourite uniform, a sentimental choice would be the KLM uniform from the mid-1970s, when I travelled a lot with my mum. In the late 1960s and 1970s the uniforms were so daring – I also love the bright yellow uniform from Hughes Airwest, and Cathay Pacific’s psychedelic blouse.
I’m 49 now and I’m a purser with KLM. People ask why my uniforms aren’t on show to the public but they are so precious to me that I would worry. I do keep an online record at uniformfreak.com and I do have 24 on display at the TAM airline museum in São Carlos, Brazil, but they’re duplicates. Perhaps one day I’ll change my mind, so that everybody can enjoy them. (As told to Jeremy Taylor)
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