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Sleek, Chic at 20,000 Feet

Dowdy uniforms are becoming a thing of the past as fashion takes wing. Airlines are turning to designers to create sophisticated outfits for flight attendants.

June 22, 2001|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fasten your seat belts, return your tray tables to an upright position. Glamour may soon return to the air if a number of carriers succeed in rescuing flight attendants from their dowdy uniforms, which can be so synthetic and shiny, it's a wonder the glare doesn't blind pilots during takeoff.

No one is expecting airplane aisles to be the high-fashion runways they were in the 1960s and '70s, when Emilio Pucci, Karl Lagerfeld, Balenciaga, Mary Quant, Jean Louis and Valentino designed snazzy uniforms for what were then known as air hostesses. But airlines are beginning once again to use style and image to sell a new generation on the amazing idea that air travel can be cool even when you're stuck waiting two hours in an airport.

Virgin Atlantic kicked off the new interest in fashion three years ago when the British carrier hired Irish designer John Rocha to give flight attendants their sophisticated, red-suited look. British Airways last month hired designer-of-the-moment Julien Macdonald, known for his sex 'em up style, to overhaul its 17-year-old red, white and blue garb. Meanwhile, across the Channel, Air France has denim duo Marithe and Francois Girbaud updating the crew's bland uniforms. In the U.S., upstart JetBlue's attendants are looking chic in city sleek, midnight blue ensembles that garnered enough attention to earn them a place in a recent exhibit about uniforms at New York's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

"It doesn't look like a uniform at all," exhibit curator Albina De Meio said of the JetBlue outfit, which some have even called "Prada-esque." (Women can accessorize their skirt suits with polka dot neckerchiefs, and men can pair their slim trousers and dark blue shirts with tailfin-print neckties.)

Who doesn't want to look sharp? Still, some have reservations. "The concern is that the uniforms will be too flashy to be functional," said spokeswoman Dawn Deeks for the Washington, D.C.-based Assn. of Flight Attendants. It's the age-old debate: Is style for the wearer or the beholder?

The effort to glam up air travel dovetails with the current cultural appetite for anything retro. Old flight bags and T-shirts (especially from defunct airlines) are hot sellers at vintage clothing stores from London to Los Angeles, and 1960s-era hostess uniforms are turning up on Internet auction sites. "Just about anything to do with airlines is a hot collectible these days," says Philip Martin, who has seen hipster attendance at his summertime Airline Expos in Los Angeles increase steadily over the last few years. And if all that wasn't enough, Miramax plans to release "A View From the Top" next year with Gwyneth Paltrow as a 1960s stewardess.

High-fashion uniforms from the golden age, such as Pucci's psychedelic-print leggings and scarf hats for now defunct Braniff International Airways and Southwest Airlines' hot pants, white leather hipster belts and go-go boots were grounded with the feminist movement in the 1970s. Stewardesses were eager to redefine their roles as working women, instead of sex objects used to attract male customers.

Skimpy outfits were out. Ralph Lauren's 1978 overhaul of American Airlines' uniforms marked the return of the sensible, military-inspired two-piece looks of the 1930s and '40s that now dominate the skies. The 1990s' casual revolution touched a few airline uniforms (Southwest's flight attendants may wear shorts, and Alaska's can don culottes), but navy blue business suits have been the norm for the most part.

Not that a few of today's post-feminist generation employees wouldn't fancy something with a little more va-va-voom.

"Hot pants sound good to me!" Aeromexico flight attendant Christina Lomeli, 22, said, casting a downward glance at her navy blue polyester skirt, blue checked shirt and Aztec print scarf earlier this week at Los Angeles International Airport.

"Stewardesses should have a bit of glamour around them to keep passengers in check," said Keith Lovegrove, author of "Airline Identity, Design and Culture" (teNeues, 2000). "If they can make a grown man sit down and belt up with just a look, then they've done their job."

Designer Macdonald, now of Givenchy, hasn't even finished sketches for the new British Airways uniforms but he told the London Telegraph a few weeks ago, "The girls will look very sexy and the men will look like strong heroes."

That didn't sit well with flight attendants. "Cabin crew are safety professionals, not marketing tools," shot back the United Kingdom's Transport and General Workers Union, which represents 45,000 civil air workers. "The criteria [for uniform design] should be that they are comfortable and functional."

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