The complicated history of female flight attendants through the decades


Female flight attendants have (literally) flown a long way since the days when stewardesses had to weigh in, agree not to wed, and wear sexy styles.

Female flight attendants for Virgin Airlines took one small step for women’s rights this week.

In an example of how dramatically life has changed since the days when stewardesses (as female flight attendants were once known) had to be petite, slim, and don sexy styles, Virgin Atlantic airlines is allowing its female plane crew to skip the makeup.

Virgin Airlines heeds “views of our people,” lets female crew skip makeup

Female flight attendants at Virgin Airlines used to have to wear makeup and a uniform of a red blouse and skirt.

But after “listening to the views of our people,” the company has changed the “styling and grooming policy,” Mark Anderson, Virgin Atlantic’s executive vice president of customer, told HuffPost.

As a result, makeup now is optional, although the airline does have a recommended color palette in the handbook.

Female cabin crew members also now receive both pants as well as a skirt to go with the traditional blouse. Both the makeup uniform guideline revisions are seen as a way to give women “an increased level of comfort” as well as “more choice on how they want to express themselves at work,” added Anderson.

Female flight attendants versus stewardesses: A social progress timeline

What’s in a name? When you’re talking about the difference between the female flight attendants of today and the stewardesses of just a few decades ago, the name change is significant.

Ironically, however, female crew members first went by the name of flight attendants before evolving into stewardesses and then back to flight attendants, according to Traveler.

In the 1930s through 1940s, female flight attendants’ responsibilities included dusting and preventing passengers from tossing trash out the windows. Their uniforms evolved along with their duties, with a “blou-slip” design providing an undergarment that didn’t have to be tucked in repeatedly during those dusting tasks.

The Airline Stewardess Association, or “ALSA,” was founded in 1945, and later became today’s Association of Flight Attendants union.

Female flight attendants viewed as having a “glamorous” profession? Well, maybe

In the 1950s, female flight attendants became viewed as women of sophistication and glamour, and the age requirements changed accordingly. By age 35, women typically could no longer become stewardesses.

In contrast, male flight attendants could continue until they turned 60.

Female flight attendants had to remain single as well. There was even a beauty pageant for the ladies, with 1956 marking the first year of the Miss Skyway contest.

The 1960s saw the birth of stewardesses used to sell tickets, with Braniff coyly advertising, “Does your wife know you’re flying with us?” and Pan Am even more coyly asking, “How do you like your stewardesses?”

Uniforms followed suit, with sexy styles as the goal.

Female flight attendants see progress, sort of, in the 1970s

Previous rules against pregnant female flight attendants were removed, along with guidelines that restricted age and marriage for stewardesses.

But that didn’t stop the sexy uniforms and marketing campaigns. At Southwest Airlines, stewardesses trotted around in hotpants.

National Airlines advertised: “I’m Judy. Fly Me” and “I’m going to fly you as you’ve never been flown before.”

From the 1980s to today: You’ve come a long way, female flight attendants

In the 1980s and 1990s through today, women working as crew member saw tremendous progress.

No longer called “stewardess,” female flight attendants also were given uniforms that focused on functionality rather than sexuality.

It’s all a dramatic change since the start of the profession, when, according to Ms. magazine, women had to be petite (5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches), weigh 100 to 118 pounds, and range in age from 20 to 26.

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These changes, of course, are long overdue. Despite there being change throughout the decades for female flight attendants, the sheer fact that it took Virgin Atlantic airlines until 2019 to address their makeup policy shows that rights for women are still, unfortunately, slow to change, and we have a long way to go.