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SFO Museum Exhibits Vintage Flight Attendant Uniforms

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SFO Museum Exhibits Vintage Flight Attendant Uniforms

SFO Museum Exhibits Vintage Flight Attendant Uniforms
August 20
11:00 2016

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco International Airport is the home of one of the best museums dedicated to commercial aviation in the country.

Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the SFO Museum has hosted many exhibitions at its various display sites around the airport’s terminals. It features the Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum and San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library, a world-class collection dedicated to airline history.

Recently, the Museum unveiled its most ambitious airline-themed exhibition ever, Fashion In Flight: A History of Airline Uniform Design. The free exhibit is on display through January 8, 2017.

Fashion In Flight presents seventy female airline uniform ensembles and additional accessories that date from 1930 to the present. It traces the development of uniform design from the anonymous, in-house origins of the pre-war and “Utility” eras, through the period of engagement with renowned couturiers and fashion houses that produced extraordinary collections for airline clientele during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, to today’s select designers who are keeping airlines at fashion’s forefront.

[tribulant_slideshow gallery_id=”386″]

The styles and trends include nurse-inspired attire, periods of military influence and austerity, the influences of Paris, New York, and Hollywood in the era of cosmopolitan glamour and the jet-set chic of the space age. The later pluralism of casual elegance with the self-expression of mix-and-match, power-dressing, and retro looks of traditionalism during the nostalgia movement are also explored. The exhibition concludes with contemporary styles of today.

Included are uniforms by Adolfo, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Bill Blass, Pierre Cardin, Oleg Cassini, André Courrèges, Christian Dior, Halston, Edith Head, Stan Herman, Macario Jiménez, Christian Lacroix, Ralph Lauren, Don Loper, Jean Louis, Hanae Mori, Jean Patou, Emilio Pucci, Ben Reig, Yves Saint Laurent, and Vivienne Westwood.

Their long list of clients includes Aeroméxico, Air France, Air West, Alia Royal Jordanian Airlines, American Airlines, Braniff International Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Eastern Air Lines, Hughes Airwest, Japan Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Pacific Southwest Airlines, Pan American World Airways, Qantas Airways, Trans World Airlines, Union de Transport Aériens, United Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic.

The Museum’s John H. Hill, Assistant Director, Aviation, took time out of his schedule to discuss Fashion In Flight with Airways.


Airways: Can you shed some light into the work required to plan an exhibit such as this? For example, what’s the lead time on the planning process? And how difficult is it to borrow and display items not in the Museum’s collection and were there any noteworthy logistical issues in setting this up?


John H. Hill: First, of course, is the acquisition of the objects to be exhibited. Within the development of the commercial aviation history collection at SFO Museum over the last twenty years or so, we have been fortunate to add a large number of airline uniform pieces.

These have come from individuals, flight attendant organizations, and the airlines themselves. So the selection for about 95% of the exhibition was made in-house. We also reached out to fill in gaps, and airlines like United, Air France, and Virgin Atlantic graciously loaned several important pieces by well-known fashion designers, and several other museums generously made loans as well. We also had to search for quite a few bits and bobs, you know, the smaller accessories such as the correct wing insignia, belts, and even buttons to complete ensembles at the level of historical accuracy we set for ourselves.

Aside from the curatorial duties of concept development, object selection, research, and text writing, the success of an exhibition depends on the work of a team of skilled professionals over a three-month period—at least. The installation designer, graphic designer, and photographer determine the look and feel of the show, our registrars, conservators, and collection management team see to the care and handling, and the stability and support of the objects and all the shipping, insurance, loan documents, cataloging, condition reporting, etc. And, the technical team of museum preparators bring an amazing set of skills to the fabrication of the exhibtry.

In Fashion In Flight, each of the seventy uniform ensembles have individually fitted mounts made by our preparators. Instead of using store mannequins, they created custom dress form-style mounts for each uniform. These reveal the full power of the objects in all their glory by focusing viewers’ attention on the material selection, tailoring, line, and silhouette of the creation and the artistry of the designer. This was an important direction in envisioning the show as a fashion history exhibition first and foremost with airline history as the secondary through line.


The Fashion In Flight exhibit occupies four galleries: two in the International Terminal’s Main Hall lobby and two in the Aviation Museum & Library. Is it your largest exhibit to date?


It is the first time we have presented a single exhibition in four galleries at once.


There are approximately 70 uniforms on display. Which ones are the most significant in your opinion?


That’s hard to say because we present this eighty-five-year range of uniforms as a continuum of the subject history. They support each other with respect to the integrity of the storyline, and therefore each has significance. There is an obvious chronological “bulge,” however, in the late 1950s to mid ‘70s periods, with the ‘60s very well represented.

This of course reflects the hyper expansion of air travel in the post-war jet age and space race eras when all the elements of glamour, corporate identity, an energized youth culture, changes in social behavior and more were packed into this type of attire.


Some airlines include flight attendants as an integral part of their overall image. The “Singapore Girl” comes to mind. Can you think of others?


It is apparent that levels of service have often been touted through the professionalism of the airlines’ employees. In respect to attire, I would say that every airline uniform, both women’s and men’s wear, is an integral part of the company identity to some degree. Some of course are stronger and more purposeful projections of the airline identity than others.

Singapore Airline’s wonderful and well-known uniform, which we did not include, even though Pierre Balmain is credited with its design, is a good example. Its style is much more of a regional statement, however, with more cultural traditionalism. Regionalism is used by many airlines, particularly national flag carriers.

This time, in Fashion In Flight, we stay pretty much within the confines of western fashion history, that is primarily Paris, Milan, New York, and Hollywood. This was both an editorial decision to bring a tighter focus to the subject and due to space limitations to some extent. But, the cosmopolitan nature and style of many of the uniforms in itself becomes the airline’s statement—they project the glamour and fashion associated with a jet-setting society. Regionalism and elements of traditional dress in airline uniform design would be a natural expansion on the theme. Maybe another exhibition down the road…


What about whimsical uniforms? The one I’m thinking about is the fictional Pan Am uniform from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Is that one on display?


Well, Stanley Kubrick’s great riff on commercial space travel in 2001 where he imagines Pan Am transports of the future and the great flight attendant costume—with Velcro-soled shoes and helmet-like hats—would be fun to show, but we stayed in the non-science fiction realm, so it is not included. However, Emilio Pucci’s 1965 Gemini IV uniform for Braniff International, which is exhibited with its “rain dome” space helmet, predates Kubrick’s film. So the whimsical Pucci creations perhaps became the inspirational.


Is there anything you’d like to add?


Just that at SFO Museum, we see that by presenting exhibitions like Fashion In Flight, where the intersection of aviation history within a broader context such as fashion is explored, we can seek to expand public awareness and keep discovering air transport’s profound connection to so many other pursuits in commerce, science, and culture.

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Bill Hough

Bill Hough

Transportation Journalist and Planner, Photographer and Historian.

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