Fashion In Flight: A History of Airline Uniform Design at SFO Museum, San Francisco Airport

29.07.2016

We spend a lot of time wishing we were on the Golden Coast of California, but today especially so. The SFO Museum has launched an exhibition of airline uniforms at their base in San Francisco airport.

From Valentino to Vivienne Westwood, the display is a who’s who of fashion design. The existence and significance of airline uniforms is well documented. From Cliff Muskiet’s incredible collection (read our interview here) to numerous exhibitions globally, cabin crew uniform holds a unique position in the history of womenswear. They convey the glamour of the vocation across the ages and they project the airline’s brand through colour, shape and motif; they document changes across design as a whole.

This exhibition presents over seventy pieces from the last eighty-five years. It traces the development of uniform design, from the utility wear pre-Second World War to the commissioning of haute couturiers in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, through to the designs of fashion designers now.

The majority of pieces are already held by the SFO Museum (oh, to raid their archives!), exhibited alongside donations from airlines and staff. Here are our favourites:

Transcontinental & Western Air hostess uniform by Howard Greer, 1944
Transcontinental & Western Air hostess uniform by Howard Greer, 1944

One of the oldest items in the exhibition is this stunning light blue garberdine outfit designed by Hollywood royalty Howard Greer. It was worn by Transcontinental stewardesses in the 1940s onwards. Its ingenious triangular lapel allowed the TWA embroidered logo to be covered, to allow air hostesses to smoke or enjoy a cocktail without fear of damaging the airline’s reputation.

Trans World Airlines hostess uniform by Oleg Cassini, 1955
Trans World Airlines hostess uniform by Oleg Cassini, 1955

For the same airline, a decade later, Oleg Cassini designed this lightweight green wool number. Cassini was famed as First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy’s official designer.

Braniff International Airways hostess uniform by Emilio Pucci, 1966
Braniff International Airways hostess uniform by Emilio Pucci, 1966

We’ve covered the Braniff babes before, and Pucci’s hostess designs shocked the entire airline industry. The vivid colour palette and heady geometric patterns signalled a new era in hostess fashion, with a collection of skirts, dresses, tunics, trousers and culottes.

Air France stewardess uniform by Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1969
Air France stewardess uniform by Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1969

Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga created this super sartorial semi-fitted look in 1969 for Air France. The utility pockets on the breast and sleeves were reminiscent of war-era designs, but a modern cut provided a better, more comfortable fit for hostesses.

Pan American World Airways stewardess uniform by Don Loper, 1959
Pan American World Airways stewardess uniform by Don Loper, 1959

Ah, Pan Am – perhaps the most iconic airline uniform in the world. Designed by Beverley Hills designer Don Loper, the famous Pan Am jacket and skirt set a precedent for glamorous airline design. The aerodynamic cut of the suit reflected the dawn of the jet age, with angular pockets and lapels and the quintessential fin on the hat completed the look.

Trans World Airlines flight attendant uniform by Valentino, 1971
Trans World Airlines flight attendant uniform by Valentino, 1971

Trans World Airlines commissioned the legendary Valentino to create their uniforms in 1971. His passion for colour is evident in this design; the bright plum tones and decadent gold buttons (carrying a ‘V’ logo) were a revolutionary shift towards a more couture approach to cabin dressing.

Qantas Airways flight attendant uniform by Yves Saint Laurent , 1986
Qantas Airways flight attendant uniform by Yves Saint Laurent , 1986

Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic kangaroo print was produced for Qantas in 1986. Worn until 1991, this ensemble screams 1980s, with angular padded shoulders, contrasting cuffs, wide lapels and button-up poly-cotton skirt – all wouldn’t look out of place in the designers Rive Gauche collections of the same decade.

Aeroméxico flight attendant uniform by Macario Jiménez, 2008
Aeroméxico flight attendant uniform by Macario Jiménez, 2008. All images courtesy SFO Museum

Finally, an underrated gem in the collection is Macario Jiménez’s Aeroméxico design, worn between 2008 and 2011. The lapel-less, tailored jacket with red piping detail and waist belt is super sexy. It’s accompanied by a jazzy Pucci-esque scarf.

For more information about the exhibition, visit the museum’s website.