When airline cabins were the world’s most sexist places to work: The first air hostesses couldn’t marry, have children or work after 32. But they DID have to go to ‘Charm Farm’, wear skimpy outfits and kiss passengers, writes TOM LEONARD
A young woman with strawberry blonde hair and come-hither eyes slowly pulls down the zip on the front of her coat to reveal a uniform of red top and skirt.
To a soundtrack of burlesque flute music, she seductively disrobes, removing first her top, then her skirt, flinging the latter stage left like a stripper jettisoning her bra.
Underneath, she is wearing a relatively demure shift dress, which she then takes off to reveal another two-piece uniform, this time in more conservative grey.
Her routine over, a deep male voiceover intones: ‘The Air Strip is brought to you by Braniff International, who believes even an airline hostess should look like a girl.’
Incredible as it may sound to modern ears, in 1965 the U.S. airline’s stewardesses would do a gradual striptease during each flight, shedding pieces of their four-part figure-hugging uniforms created by designer Emilio Pucci.
Flight attendants had to be single and could only work until the age of 32 – as well as having strict weight and measurement requirements
Marketed by their employers as not only desirable but available, air stewardesses were virtual airborne Playboy Bunnies
This TV commercial and another equally jaw-dropping advert that ran with the copyline, ‘Does your wife know you’re flying with us?’, proved to be extraordinarily successful. Within a year, the airline’s revenue had soared by 50 per cent.
The 1960s and 1970s are often described as the Golden Age of air travel, and, in 1965 alone, as many as a million women were interviewed for 10,000 jobs as ‘sky girls’ on U.S. airlines.
But that era was more golden for the male business travellers, who made up most of the passengers, than the young women airlines thrust their way as sex objects.
Their image as airborne Playboy Bunnies was driven home by lavish, innuendo-laden adverts such as National Airlines’ infamous ‘I’m Cheryl. Fly me’ and Air France’s ‘Have you ever done it the French Way?’, and by a training regime that wouldn’t have been out of place in a sultan’s harem.
Marketed by their employers as not only desirable but available, stewardesses found that when they weren’t batting off the advances of passengers, they were fighting to stop predatory pilots pushing their way into their hotel rooms.
As a history of their industry reveals, air stewardesses — now, of course, called flight attendants and as likely to be male as female — were discouraged from saying no to passengers who had heard all about the Mile High Club.
Dressed to entice, stewardesses couldn’t marry, have children or work beyond 32. And woe betide any who put on weight — adding a few pounds could be a sacking offence.
Some were required to kiss male passengers, the men often twisting round at the last second to catch the attendant on the mouth.
‘It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that in the 1960s the aeroplane cabin was the most sexist workplace in America,’ says Nell McShane Wulfhart, whose book The Great Stewardess Rebellion also reveals how some determined attendants fought for respect and basic employment benefits such as maternity leave.
And yet young women flocked to do it, buying into the flight attendants’ glamour-girl image as enthusiastically as everyone else did.
Airlines used overtly sexual messaging in iconic adverts such as these ‘Fly Me’ flyers
Airlines, selling tickets off stewardess’ looks, marketed their life as alluring, adventurous and exclusive. And compared to most options for women at the time, it was.
Looks mattered more than anything, such as the ability to deal with an in-flight emergency. Stewardesses had to be pretty and slim. They couldn’t be short, wear glasses or have gaps in their teeth.
In short, they had to look like the glamorous gang of Pan Am stewardesses who distract wolf-whistling police and FBI as Leonardo DiCaprio — playing a conman who posed as a pilot — slips into Miami Airport behind them in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can.
If women were selected for stewardess training — after filling out an application that included questions about their weight, and hip, waist and bust measurements — they were sent to de facto boarding schools, where they slept in dormitories, took classes in applying nail varnish and gluing on fake eyelashes, and were weighed up to twice a day. They even had to adopt whatever hairstyle the airline had specified that year.
Patt Gibbs, who attended the American Airlines school nicknamed the Charm Farm, recalls that taking a slice of bread could result in a trip to the supervisor’s office to be put on the scales.
Under American’s rules, a woman standing 5 ft 5 in had to weigh 9st 3 lb or less. The indignities didn’t end with training. Attendants had to wear girdles, bras and shifts, and their superiors — including male supervisors and pilots — were entitled to check everything was in place, a process the stewardesses witheringly dubbed the ‘free feel’.
They also put up with the ‘girdle thump’, a flick of a superior’s finger to her rear to make sure she was wearing it. They’d run their hands down her back to check for a bra.
Weight was ferociously policed. Airports had scales to weigh attendants often in front of male colleagues (who didn’t do the same). Troublemakers, such as those who complained about working conditions, faced the threat of being put on ‘weight check’ and, if they were a couple of pounds over, being compulsory weighed publicly before every flight.
Airline doctors prescribed ‘diet pills’ — known as ‘black mollies’ — which turned out to be amphetamines liable to prompt paranoia. One ‘trolley dolly’ even had a breast-reduction to get her weight down.
They also had to be single and some supervisors would scan newspaper marriage announcements for attendants getting wed on the sly. It’s estimated as many as 30 per cent of them were secretly married, some installing a dedicated phone line for work, which their husband never answered.
Pregnancy was another sackable offence, sometimes forcing attendants to injure themselves to get time off to have secret abortions.
And all this for a starting salary of around $5,000 a year (equivalent to roughly $44,000 — £35,000 — now).
Some adverts were too lewd even for long-suffering flight attendants and female staff were infuriated by leering passengers endlessly asking if they could ‘fly’ them
Stewardesses working for Southwest Airlines of Texas had to wear hot pants and kinky leather boots or they wouldn’t be hired
‘What was it like for a man to get on a plane knowing every stewardess was single and, theoretically, available?’ writes Wulfhart. For that was the airlines’ intention.
Their advertising played up the idea stewardesses were perfect wife material. An American Airlines advert lightheartedly complained that ‘people keep stealing our stewardesses’, alongside a picture of a suited man dragging off an attendant, his hand over her mouth.
The same advert boasted most of their attendants didn’t last two years in the job before getting married. This was, apparently, because ‘a girl who can smile for five-and-a-half hours is hard to find. Not to mention a wife who can remember what 124 people want for dinner’.
Some attendants went on dates with passengers and some married them. Many more, however, put up with unwanted advances and stares as they tried to do their exhausting and stressful jobs in mini-skirts and high-heeled leather boots.
While The Great Stewardess Rebellion doesn’t touch on whether attendants ever joined the Mile High Club, airline adverts certainly suggested it was a possibility, emphasising ‘the nubile allure of the stewardesses and their dedication to passenger comfort’.
And as they competed for customers, airlines encouraged passengers to appreciate their stewardesses, invariably the main selling point. United boasted about the increased size of its Tristar planes, adding: ‘You’ll need all that room. You’ll be swivelling around looking at the stewardesses.’
Some adverts were too lewd even for long-suffering flight attendants. National Airlines’ 1971 ‘Fly Me’ campaign, featured real attendants such as Cheryl Fioravante alongside the headline ‘I’m Cheryl. Fly me’ and stewardesses had to wear ‘Fly me’ badges. Female staff were infuriated by leering passengers endlessly asking if they could.
Some picketed the airline’s offices and those of the New York agency that created the campaign, the latter’s boss further annoying them by giving each of them roses. But like other titillating ads, it was great for business. The agency produced a follow-up — again featuring Cheryl — with the line: ‘Millions of people flew me last year.’ When National threatened to run another featuring stewardesses in swimsuits and the tagline, ‘I’m going to fly you like you’ve never been flown before’, a court finally agreed it was too far.
However, inspired by National’s success, competitors’ ads became more salacious. Continental Airlines created the slogan ‘We Really Move Our Tail For You’.
Southwest Airlines’ ‘At last, there’s somebody else up there who loves you’ campaign lasted eight years and featured TV commercials in which, as soon as the plane took off, stewardesses stripped off their uniforms to reveal orange hot pants and served ‘love potions’ (cocktails) to male passengers. ‘We Make Love 80 Times a Day,’ boasted its posters.
It wasn’t just American flyers. Finnair, for example, created a print advert featuring a topless woman with the airline’s route map on her back. Attendants were portrayed as sex objects in adverts for toothpaste and baby oil, too.
All this pigeonholing — along with the arrival of erotic stewardess novels with titles such as Tea, Coffee Or Me — not only increased the ‘leering and heavy-handed flirting’ but made flight attendants’ jobs impossible, they complained.
Nobody took them seriously, even in an emergency, which could have fatal consequences.
Pan Am stewardess Cindy Hounsell recalled alerting her pilot to an outbreak of food poisoning only to be dismissed as a ‘hysterical broad’. A dozen ambulances were needed to take victims off the plane and one reportedly died.
Sandra Jarrell, sacked as a stewardess for putting on weight, recalled she was ‘pinched, fondled, leered at, asked out on dates and propositioned’ more times than she could remember.
‘The airlines gear you into being a sex object,’ she said. ‘They brainwash you into accepting it. You lose self-respect. You become cynical. And you begin to hate people — while you’re smiling — because you know they don’t respect you.’
Lewd remarks from male passengers they’d probably never see again was one thing, but pilots and other male colleagues such as mechanics were infamous for sexually harassing attendants.
Every stewardess knew about the ‘foot in the door’, writes Wulfhart. ‘After the crew went for dinner and drinks, returning to the hotel with your colleagues often included a protracted debate at the door to your room, the pilot pushing to come in and the stewardess trying to politely decline.’
Nobody took attendants seriously, even in an emergency, which could have fatal consequences. Pan Am stewardess Cindy Hounsell recalled alerting her pilot to an outbreak of food poisoning only to be dismissed as a ‘hysterical broad’. A dozen ambulances were needed to take victims off the plane and one reportedly died
The level of harassment often depended on the outfit each stewardess had to wear. In the 1950s, stewardesses were demurely dressed in hats, skirt suits and white gloves but in the 1960s, this gave way to the sex kitten look.
When Canadian Pacific Air Lines replaced its mini-skirt uniform with a skirt that went below the knee, hundreds of men wrote in. The airline held a customers’ poll, ignoring their attendants’ preference, and restored the old skirt.
Another Canadian airline, Pacific Western, introduced a ‘Stampeder Uniform’ for attendants flying the planes that ferried the roughneck loggers to and from their camps.
It included cowboy boots and a mini-skirt so short that red ‘bloomers’ peeked out. Two women refused to wear the outfit after one was groped, only to be sacked.
In 1968, Trans World Airlines (TWA) launched ‘Foreign Accent’ flights on which attendants wore themed English, French and Italian uniforms made out of paper.
‘Olde English’ was a ruffled white blouse and short skirt, French was a gold mini-dress and Italian was a white, toga-style robe. Mercifully, for the attendants, the paper outfits fell apart after a few months and the innovation was shelved.
Southern Airlines tried to be different, saying it would ‘respect femininity’ by commissioning French designer Pierre Balmain to create a knee-length dress so stewardesses could bend over without revealing too much. It didn’t catch on with passengers and, three years later, the women were in hot pants, short-sleeved shirts and lace-up go-go boots.
Few people saw anything wrong. Even the usually sanctimonious New York Times ran a travel feature in 1969 inviting readers to guess which stewardess matched which airline. There were no prizes, said the paper, ‘save the satisfaction that comes from keeping a sharp eye on the stewardesses on those dull business trips’.
That year, the U.S. president jumped on the bandwagon when 40 air stewardesses dressed in silver sequin mini-dresses welcomed guests to Richard Nixon’s inaugural ball as its official hostesses.
Airlines fiercely resisted change, arguing they had to force stewardesses to retire at 32 because they had to be ‘attractive’ (even though at least six who were forced to leave their jobs later killed themselves).
They also had to be tall, they said, or they’d reveal too much leg as they reached the overhead bins.
But the airlines couldn’t get away with it for ever. This, after all, was the era of the ‘Second Wave’ of U.S. feminism led by the likes of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan who inspired stewardesses to stand up for their rights.
They finally got their own union in 1977. Even then, some of them resisted, defending the oppressive weight and appearance rules because it was a good idea to ‘get the fatties out’ of the business.
So much for travel broadening the mind.
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