Style in the Aisles: British Airways Uniform Through the Years
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Style in the Aisles: British Airways Uniform Through the Years

DALLAS — On Friday, January 6, 2022, British Airways (BA) finally unveiled its new crew uniforms, designed by Saville Row tailor Ozwald Boateng OBE. The new look had been five years in the making, after being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the reaction was not as positive as BA or Mr. Boateng would have hoped, with some calling it “dull,” “uninspiring,” and “impractical.”

The UK’s flag carrier can trace its history back over 100 years to the formation of Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited (AT&T) in 1919. Its crews have become known as some of the best dressed in the industry throughout its history. BA and its previous incarnations have had relationships with some of the world’s top designers, and we look back at those iconic uniforms.

BA celebrated its 100th birthday in 2019 with a look at some of its former uniforms. Photo: British Airways

Initial Uniforms

In January 1922, Instone Airline LTD, another BA forerunner, introduced the world’s first uniforms for its pilot’s uniforms and “cabin boys.” Like all aircrew uniforms in the early days, garments were designed for a male figure. They were military-inspired and created from whatever materials were available, usually in khaki or navy blue.

Imperial Airways introduced the Hanley Page HP42 with first-class Pullman-style interiors in 1931. Onboard was a steward, who carried a bag to attend to passenger needs and changed into a white coat to provide full meal service. 

In 1939 Imperial Airways was merged with British Airways to form British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).

An Imperial Airways Steward in full uniform. Photo: British Airways

BOAC is Born

The first designer to create a uniform for BOAC was Maurice Helman. Introduced in September 1946, Helman made the uniforms to meet ‘the practical requirements of airline personnel.’ Although the distinct military style remained with a collar, tie, and stylish hat, they were designed with elegance and modernity in a smart shade of gray.

The look was softened slightly in the early 1950s with an open-neck blouse and no belt and made to look much more feminine in both fit and appearance. 

With an ever-expanding route network and thus an ever-expanding variation in passenger cultures, BOAC introduced national dress uniforms in the mid-1950s.

White cheongsams, colorful saris, and traditional kimonos were worn by Stewardesses from these countries who spoke the relevant languages and understood the local cultures. It was an extension of BOAC’s ‘taking more care’ approach on routes with strong historical links, which passengers greatly appreciated. 

BOAC’s first uniforms were created by Maurice Helman. Photo: British Airways

British European Airways

British European Airways (BEA) was created on January 1, 1946, following the end of World War II and the introduction of the Civil Aviation Act to establish flights to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East from UK airports. 

With the end of hostilities, fashion was again becoming more mainstream. Rations and limitations on fabric were reduced, and the stylish Flight Attendant (FA) was born. 

BEA’s first uniform consisted of a stylish grey barathea suit with a rolled collar and a deep revere, curving gracefully down to twin buttons at a nipped and tucked waistline. The new look was heavily influenced by the courtiers of Paris and inspired by the Christian Dior collections of the time. 

This picture highlights the change in BEA’s uniform from its earlier military-style apparel (FA’s left and right) to a softer, more feminine, tailored look reflecting the fashion of the time (FA center). Photo: British Airways

Joining the Jet Set

The second creation for BOAC was of a very similar design to the 1952 uniform. Put together by Sir Norman Hartnell, an influential British Fashion designer and dressmaker to the Queen, the uniform consisted of a navy suit worn with a white blouse and gloves. 

The ’60s heralded a change in the perception and designs of female FA uniforms. It was the birth of the ‘jet set’ era, where style and high fashion were not just for the glamorous passengers but also for airline staff. 

Hartnell’s uniforms reflected both the spirit of the time and the brand values of the growing airline. They presented classic simplicity of design while keeping its uniformed girls’ feminine and in fashion. It was the start of a relationship with top British Haute Couturiers that has endured to this day. 

In 1969 BOAC introduced kimonos on their UK-Japan polar route. Each female Japanese crew member was allowed to buy a kimono of their choice from their local shops, the only stipulation being that it must be of traditional design and pattern. These were eventually retired in 1974 at the request of the Japanese crew, who stated that while they were distinctive, they were also challenging to wear while on duty.

A BOAC advert from the 1960s. Photo: British Airways

Chic Style

In 1956 students at the Royal College of Art were invited to submit designs for a new uniform for BEA, with John Cavanagh, one of the top names in British fashion, on the selection panel.

Sylvia Ayton (MBE) was chosen and created apparel in a new material of pure worsted with a blue-black check and black border. A hip-length, wide-neck pleated jacket buttoned to the neck was coupled with a straight skirt with a Dior-style pleat at the back. This was worn with a blue single-breasted raincoat lined in red and a forage hat without a cockade, made in the same material and designed for easy packing.

The female look was very in keeping with the time—chic and smart. Male uniforms continued along the more traditional lines: single- or double-breasted jackets and trousers in dark blues or black, matched with crisp white shirts and ties.

The Sylvia Ayton uniform for BEA. Photo: British Airways

The Iconic ‘Paper’ Dress

As air travel grew, uniforms changed dramatically. Airlines began experimenting with color, and fabrics. One such uniform was the epitome of experimental. Worn by BOAC FA’s on routes between New York and the Caribbean, the infamous flower power, psychedelic ‘Paper Dress’ was manufactured by Joseph Lore Inc. in New York.

The cream dress, which wasn’t actually made of paper, but a fireproof paper-like fabric, had a pattern of cerise and purple flowers with green leaves. It was worn with tan tights, green jeweled slippers, white gloves, and a flower in the hair. They were cut to length by the crews to match their height, no higher than three inches above the knee, and thrown away at the end of each flight. 

While the outfit may have put BOAC into the fashion limelight, they did not grace the aircraft aisles for long, withdrawn after less than a year. Legend has it that some more high-spirited male passengers were tempted to take a cigarette lighter to the dress to see what would happen!

The paper dress was used on the airline’s Caribbean routes. Photo: British Airways

Royals to Runways

By the mid-1960s, BEA was acknowledged as the #1 airline in Europe, so it seemed fitting that the UK’s #1 couturier and dressmaker to the Queen – Sir Hardy Amies, would design a new uniform for its crew. 

Amies had years of experience designing uniforms, and his creation was BEA’s first significant flight into high-end fashion.

Amies said about the new apparel, “I am very pleased to design new uniforms for this great national airline. BEA carries more passengers than any other airline in Europe and provides an excellent shop window for British Fashion.”

Gone were the dark blues and blacks of the Ayton uniform, replaced with a vibrant red, white, and blue creation that echoed the colors of BEA’s new livery and the Union Jack flag. But one of the most significant changes of the Amies’ creation was shorter skirts, in keeping with the style of the “swinging sixties,” introduced following requests from the wife of BEA’s then Chairman. 

The dress and jacket were made of royal blue worsted terylene, and they were paired with a white blouse and gloves. Meanwhile, the striking red-capped overcoat provided a splash of color to match the red wings of the new aircraft livery. It was also the first time that trousers were part of a female BEA FA’s wardrobe. 

The new uniform made the BEA crew stand out across the continent. Management had finally taken a leaf out of its American counterparts’ book and realized the potential selling appeal of dressing its 1,500 female customer-facing staff in fashionable attire.

The colors of the new uniform were in keeping with BEA’s new color scheme. Photo: British Airways

Space Age Design

By the early 1970s, Neil Armstrong had become the first man to set foot on the moon, and the world had gone space mad. In keeping with the trend, BOAC enlisted the help of Britain’s top young courtier Clive Evans, to create a new ‘space-age’ uniform coinciding with the introduction of its Boeing 747.

His new apparel differed from previous uniforms, reflecting the new “London Look.” It was also convenient and versatile, suited to the demands of dealing with the increase in passenger numbers on the 747 and climate variations at the growing number of destinations BOAC flew.

A summer uniform comprised either a coral pink or Caribbean blue terylene and cotton twill dress with rigid geometric lines. The fabric allowed the dress to be easily washable in the crew’s hotel sinks and drip-dry overnight.

The winter dress and smart jacket in terylene wool worsted were also easy-care with a warm wool top-coat and boots. Following BEA’s lead, the carrier also permitted trousers for the first time for its female crew.

The uniform was later adapted for the airline’s Pakistani crew. A navy blue tunic with matching trousers and a white georgette hood was styled to conform to a modified national costume.

The introduction of the Boeing 747 saw the arrival of a new uniform. Photo: British Airways

“Expression of Individuality”

Designed again by Sir Amies, the updated yet slightly more conservative pieces were introduced in 1972 and included a French navy suit with twin rows of scarlet stitching. 

Amies described it as “elegant and feminine” and reasoned that “there is a strong current trend away from uniformity, especially amongst the young, so I have designed a uniform which does allow the expression of individuality.”

Indeed, crew achieved individuality through interchangeable red, white, or blue blouses, and scarves. A hat trimmed with BEA red Petersham ribbon was in, but the stunning red trench coat of the previous design was out, replaced with a beige-colored replica.

Just five years after introducing the first Amies outfit, the change in the uniform was more than just a new look. Times were changing in the industry, and in May 1972, the UK government merged BEA and BOAC to form British Airways (BA), with the new airline taking to the skies on March 31, 1974.

Management at BEA is believed not to have liked the Clive Evans BOAC uniform, and with a merger looming, staff carried this Amies look forward to the newly formed BA.

Amies’ second look for BEA was über stylish. Photo: British Airways

Concorde Couture

Taking to the skies with BA on January 21, 1976, it was deemed necessary that Concorde crews be dressed in a new and exclusive uniform to compliment this unique and exclusive service. 

Amies was again enlisted to create the casually elegant and uncomplicated look.

Made of 100% Dacron polyester in gabardine and crepe designed to be ‘totally uncrushable, washable fabric,’ pieces came in either pale blue or French navy.

Sadly, after just six months, BA withdrew the uniform as the company did not want the Concorde crews to be seen as any more elitist than they were likely to become.

The sub-fleet uniform for the Concorde crew lasted just six months. Photo: British Airways

“Forward Thinking Fashion” for a New Flag Carrier

By June 1977, every trace of BEA and BOAC had disappeared. British Airways was now the UK’s flag carrier, so a hand-me-down uniform from Amies was no longer suitable for its staff.

Top British fashion house Baccarat Wetherall was enlisted to design the new apparel, promising to produce a uniform elegant enough to appear in Vogue.”

The classic tailored style look was dark blue, consisting of a red-lined jacket and a skirt or flared trousers, designed to “represent forward-thinking in fashion.” The white blouse was worn with silk scarves, a dark blue leather shoulder bag, and a matching belt, all bearing the new BA logo. A lightweight PVC overcoat complimented the look, and a small-brimmed hat added a touch of class and British style.

While the uniform was described as “business-like, attractive yet efficient and butch,” it was the beginning of establishing the new BA brand image to the public and the wider aviation industry.

The Baccarat Wetherall uniform was brought out for the carrier’s 100th anniversary. Photo: British Airways

Updating its Image

Frenchman Roland Klein was the creator of the next uniform, unveiled in 1985. Klein intended to create an “updated timelessness” in his new outfits after deeming the Weatherall uniform ‘too tight, structured, and stiff.’ His vision was to use the best elements of a British wardrobe, including classic garments that the rest of the world had always admired and copied, all with a touch of French chic.

Designed to convey a less formal and more welcoming image to complement BA’s new campaign to ‘put the customer first.’ It was the first time a range of uniforms was designed for staff across the company, linking the whole airline under a shared corporate style.

It comprised a wool midnight blue jacket, a pearl grey skirt, and a blue leather belt, which the crew wore with a long blouse with ‘Speedwing red’ and blue and grey stripes. The blouse could be worn with a skirt in the same design in the summer. For the first time, a traditional double-breasted suit in dark blue was designed especially for pilots, with a silver braid replacing the classic gold.

New national crew uniforms were also created with saris, a cheongsam, and a traditional salwar kameez-style uniform.

Along with the stunning and now iconic new Landor Associates livery, management saw the uniform as one of the most essential elements of BA’s corporate image, used in advertising and publicity material.

Roland Klein’s uniform was classic ’80s style. Photo: British Airways

‘The World’s Favourite Airline’

As BA soared into the nineties as ‘The World’s Favourite Airline,’ another uniform redesign was announced, with Irish-American Paul Costelloe taking the helm.

Research had shown that the Roland Klien outfit had become unpopular with passengers and staff alike, considered ‘old fashioned’ and ‘lacking in style.’ Klein’s uniform was too 1980s, and the changeover to Costelloe was to cost BA £14m. 

Costelloe was passionate about the environment and devoted much of his time to sourcing ecologically sound fabrics. Renowned for his use of natural fibers, wherever possible, renewable raw materials were used. Speaking of the new uniform, Costelloe was very aware that “a uniform isn’t just something that you wear, it’s got to support you in your job, being comfortable and practical at all time.” 

A striking ‘Aztec’-design blouse with a matching summer skirt made from polyester crêpe de Chine was easy care, and draped perfectly, keeping the multiple pleats razor sharp. This was coupled with a stylish tiny pin-dot design formal jacket and boater-style hat. 

The uniform reflected BA’s global and multicultural nature, keeping with the carrier’s recently introduced ‘World Tails’ livery. In 1996 BA unveiled its new Sari uniforms. Created by Indian designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Kholsa, they matched Costelloe’s Western uniform design in corporate red, white and blue.

Costello’s uniform was used at the height of BA’s popularity. Photo: British Airways.

British Heritage

The airline’s longest-serving uniform was created by Julien Macdonald in 2003. Macdonald said at the time, “I wanted to create a uniform that puts the glamour back into flying. It couldn’t get any worse than the one they had for years, it made the cabin crew look like someone’s old granny queuing for a bus because it was so unflattering.” OUCH!

The uniform was designed ‘to reflect BA’s great British heritage,’ combining a wool mix and pinstripe suit with a flattering cut, harking back to the pioneering days of aviation. But the attention to detail creates a stylish and sophisticated look like no other with branded cufflinks, shirt buttons, and striking red jacquard lining in the suiting. 

In 2007 a new Indian uniform, designed by Rohit Bal, was introduced, incorporating the key elements of the Julien Macdonald suit.

The uniform was further updated when BA created its ‘mixed fleet’ operation. A stylish and traditional hat made with top milliner Stephen Jones was complemented by additional accessories such as a leather handbag, matching belt, and gloves, designed by British leather goods specialist Tanner Krolle.

In November 2022, it was announced that BA would finally overhaul its archaic uniform regulations, allowing the crew to choose what make-up or accessories to wear. This was part of BA’s commitment to creating “an inclusive working environment.”

Aside from a few additions to the look, the current BA uniform has remained unchanged for almost 20 years. Photo: British Airways.

Ozwald Boateng’s Design

Boateng’s design is the first uniform refresh for BA in almost 20 years. Over the coming months, the new uniform pieces will be rolled out to BA’s 30,000+ staff members. 

The new uniform includes a jumpsuit, dress, skirt, or trousers for ladies. A hijab and tunic option has also been created. The men’s look consists of a smart three-piece suit.

Items, including jackets, t-shirts, buttons, and ties, feature an airwave pattern “inspired by the movement of air over an aircraft wing,” BA said. Meanwhile, the jacquard fabric across each tailored garment features a take on the airline’s iconic speedmarque.

More than 90% of the garments are produced using sustainable fabric from recycled polyester blends. The carrier said that old uniforms will be donated to charity, recycled, or given to the airline’s museum.

BA’s hotly anticipated new uniform has divided opinion. Photo: British Airways.

What do you think of the new Ozwald Boateng’s uniform for BA? Let us know in the comments and across social media.

Featured Image: Some of BA’s previous uniforms worn for the airline’s 100th anniversary in 1919. Photo: British Airways.

European Deputy Editor
Writer, aviation fanatic, and Airways European Deputy Editor, Lee is a plant geek and part-time Flight Attendant for a UK-based airline. Based in Liverpool, United Kingdom.

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