Flying colours

From boxy blazers to synthetic shirts that emit more static crackle than an airport tannoy, many of the air stewardesses uniforms we encounter when heading off on holiday aren‘t exactly chic.

It wasn’t always like this, though, from the 1940s until the late 1970s, stewardess uniforms were at the cutting edge of jet-set glamour. Retro outfits that now look deeply kitsch, as well as classic motifs that remain part of the look, have continued to influence mainstream fashion.

Many designers have even created uniforms. Emilio Pucci’s designs for Braniff International were probably the most memorable, including its 1965 “space helmet”, a clear plastic bubble designed to protect hairstyles from wind and rain on the walk from the terminal to the plane before the air bridge was introduced. The only drawback was that stewardesses found it difficult to hear anything.

Armani designed uniforms for Alitalia in the 1990s and Christian Lacroix for Air France in 2005; Valentino, Hermès, Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain and Mary Quant all tried their hand in the sector. Now, details from vintage uniforms have found their way into several contemporary collections: the retro geometric patterns, trapeze shapes and bold colours of Marc by Marc Jacobs, for example; the 1970s prints and colours of Diane von Furstenberg; and the silky pussy-bow blouses of designers everywhere. Not to mention the Duchess of Cambridge’s line in neat little hats, which aren’t a million (air) miles away from what might be seen on British Airways hostesses.

Two people who have already made the connection between style in the skies and mainstream fashion are Cliff Muskiet and Mike Stenitschka, airline stewards for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Lufthansa respectively. Their extensive collections of vintage uniforms are shown here. “You can see fashion change through the years when you look at the stewardess uniforms,” says Muskiet, who has more than 300 pieces. He points out that this is not the case for the men’s uniforms, which are “the same: jacket, pants, plain shirt and a tie ... dark blue, quite boring”. Muskiet acquired his collection by contacting the airlines directly, while Stenitschka, who has around 200 uniforms, says he finds his through “colleagues, eBay, the internet and other collectors”. Prices can be sky high: a few years ago, bids for a 90-piece Braniff International Airways wardrobe began at $100,000. Here Muskiet and Stenitschka explain why they are worth so much, and what it means to own a piece (or a few hundred) of aviation’s fashionable history.

Southern Winds, Argentina, 1990s; Avianca, 1990s; Iberia, 1983; Mohawk Airlines, 1960s

Do you think the glitz and glamour have been replaced by what’s practical and comfortable?

Cliff Muskiet: When you look at late 1960s and early 1970s uniforms – with hot pants and short skirts – you can’t believe that stewardesses wore them. The uniforms were used to attract male passengers but throughout the years they have become more like business outfits. I also think that today we use better and nicer materials for uniforms that look practical and feel more comfortable. In the 1970s, a lot of polyester was used and today that is a big no because it is too warm. Short skirts are not practical at all on board because you have to bend and stretch all the time.

Fashion designers have created uniforms for airlines over the years. Who is your favourite?

CM: I don’t have a favourite designer when it comes to airline uniforms. Yves Saint Laurent has made beautiful clothes for women but the uniform he designed for Qantas in the 1980s was so horrible. The fact that a fashion designer makes beautiful clothes does not mean that he or she can make beautiful uniforms, too. It also depends on what the airline wants; a fashion designer never has a free hand. The designer has to take into account that the airline has certain wishes. There are some unknown designers who have designed some very nice uniforms, more beautiful than famous designers like Armani, Balenciaga or Pucci.

Mike Stenitschka: Pucci’s designs differ completely from all the others, especially the uniform with the space helmet.

What is your favourite uniform?

CM: There are two KLM uniforms that have sentimental value for me: my very first uniform from KLM in 1971, and the KLM uniform worn from 1975 till 1982. In those years I travelled a lot with my mother to the US and we would always fly KLM. I was fascinated by the hat that was worn by the stewardesses – it looked like a mushroom. I also love the Alia, the Royal Jordanian Airline uniform, from the late 1970s-1980s (orange and beige with cap). I love the print on the blouse at Iberia from 1972 to 1977, and the hat is so different, very stylish. I love the total look at Japan Airlines in the 1970s and 1980s. United Airlines from 1968 to 1970 had a simple groovy dress and Air France’s 1970s uniform was elegant.

MS: The beige Pan Am uniform from 1971 with the bowler hat and, of course, the yellow Lufthansa dress from the 1970s.

Hughes Airways, USA, 1970s; China Air, 1990s; United Airlines, 1970s; Tyrolean Airways, 2007. Mike Stenitschka owns those from United Airlines and Tyrolean Airways

Favourite decade?

CM: Love the 1970s and the late 1960s. Love the hot pants, short skirts, big pointy collars and “soul” pants. Love the bright colours and the psychedelic prints. Mix-and-match was a big thing in the US and Canada in the 1970s, and stewardesses could choose what to wear from many different items.

Who designed the current Lufthansa uniform and what is your verdict?

MS: Strenesse. I have seen prettier ones, if you know what I mean.

Dutch fashion designer Mart Visser created the latest KLM uniforms. What is your verdict?

CM: My female colleagues look much better in the new uniform. For the first time in history, they can choose to wear trousers. I was negative about them at first but I even think they look better than the skirt.

How do you see the future of the airline uniform?

CM: Technology will bring better textiles. A stewardess uniform should be comfortable at all times: in cold and hot climates.

A full version of this interview appears in the new limited-edition magazine from the vintage website Launching on Saturday, the magazine celebrates luxury vintage fashion, art and culture and is available from Atelier Mayer, the Colette store in Paris and the Ginette store in Beirut

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