Lonely Planet Writer

Style in the aisles - marvel at the amazing and outlandish history of flight uniforms

While people no longer view air travel as a glamorous mode of transport and dress for the occasion, a unique exhibit at San Francisco International Airport is offering travellers a glimpse into the stylish flight attendant wardrobe of the golden age of air travel.

Braniff International Airways hostesses in uniforms by Emilio Pucci1965
Braniff International Airways hostesses in uniforms by Emilio Pucci 1965.  Image by Braniff International Public Relations Archives

Fashion In Flight: A History of Airline Uniform Design is a new exhibit put on by the SFO Museum that chronicles the evolution of the airline uniform over the last 85 years of commercial air travel, a reminder that people haven’t always worn yoga pants and Uggs while flying.

United Air Lines stewardess in uniform by Jean Louis
United Air Lines stewardess in uniform by Jean Louis Image by United Airlines Archive

The exhibition features 70 flight uniforms from more than 30 designers.  The fashionable role of air travel in the jet age of the 20th century is evident in the star-studded list of designers on display, including Cristóbal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Oleg Cassini, Christian Dior, Halston, Christian Lacroix, Ralph Lauren, Emilio Pucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Vivienne Westwood.

United Airlines flight attendants in uniforms by Stan Herman 1976
United Airlines flight attendants in uniforms by Stan Herman 1976 Image by United Airlines Archive

Airlines used their flight uniforms as a way to establish a brand identity and reflect the current fashions of the time, showing customers that the company was tapped into the contemporary culture. The need to be seen as trendy led to some fascinating and outlandish outfits, including the wonderfully impractical clear ‘space bubble’ helmets created by Pucci for Braniff International Airways in 1965, only to be upstaged the next year by his psychedelic Supersonic Derby uniform from 1966.

Braniff International Airways hostess in uniform by Emilio Pucci
Braniff International Airways hostess in uniform by Emilio Pucci Image by Braniff International Public Relations Archives

Some uniforms were an homage to the home country of the airline. Japan Airlines had a stylish mod uniform designed by Hanae Mori that incorporated a hat featuring a crane and a belt that resembled the rising sun, while Qantas Airways debuted a multicolored kangaroo print dress in 1986.

The exhibit is free and runs until 8 January, 2017. The museum is located before security in the airport, so no boarding pass is required.