The Airline Stewardess

Air hostess who makes heads turn for a second look in Oxford, is pretty, 20-year-old, P. B. One reason is that P’s uniform is quite unusual thereabouts – she being the only air hostess  in the area for Pan American Airways. The other reason is her smart and “second glance” appearance. This Penny attributes to Spirella foundations, which keep her figure trim. Spirella Magazine - April 1961.

Indeed, she does looks very trim, and in 1961 represents a step beyond the military style uniforms that emerged from passenger transport after World War II (BOAC - right).

The image of the stewardess, and countless stories both factual and fictional, are legion, however, there is often a practical reason for everything. In the early days of passenger flight, and I mean before the modern jet, aeroplanes were extremely weight sensitive and it simply made sense to employ the slimmest, lightest women commensurate with the safety tasks that they might have to perform. Certainly, the gimlet-eyed harridan (right) was almost always ground staff although in this cartoon she is saying "Whisky Sir - at this hour?!" The cartoon comes from Goeffrey Williams' classic book 'Fasten Your Lapstraps" (1955).

Spirella candidly reveals that P. wears their foundations, but was this a mandatory requirement of the airline or simply what her peers would wear? I believe that the latter is the case, but we will go into a more detailed discussion below.

What is for sure, stewardesses are required to be well groomed and confident. With the power of the modern turbofan, they can also be larger than their sisters of the propeller era. This is not being size-ist, it is simply being factual.





How often have people discussed the uncover attributes of the airline stewardess? Were girdles a mandatory part of their uniform? The answer almost certainly varies from airline to airline, however, I have spoken to a Dutch stewardess who has worked from the 1970's until recently and she knew of no such regulations. On the other hand, during training, keeping a smart appearance was drummed into the recruits, and advice was offered on foundations that might be appropriate. My friend has never worn a lower foundation and probably never will. She looks extremely smart without, however, she knew that several of her colleagues in those days wore panty-girdles and expects that several will be wearing shapers of some description today. No mandatory rules here; simply a statistical sample of fashion trends.


The truth of the matter, and it applies equally to all women whose work requires them to spend much of their time in the vertical, such as nurses, is that tired legs (the old euphemism for varicose veins) is a real problem. Even today, my elegant friend wears support tights, and not just because of the recent scare about deep vein thrombosis. If stewardesses and nurses wore girdles, it was a) because most women did anyway, and b), they needed something to hold up their support stockings. Never forget, a girdle has two functions, to trim the figure and to hold up one's stockings. Often the latter is more important than the former.


My friend mentioned a curious incident (almost a cautionary tale) that occurred to an ex-colleague. This girl was tempted away from the airline to work as a stewardess for a small private company. This firm owned a executive jet in the 1970's. If you have ever been on one of these planes, you'll know that they are extremely cramped, however, the bosses wanted a stewardess and that was that! The perpetual bending in the cramped confines of the jet, ultimately resulted in such back pain, that the poor girl had to give up her job. Her doctor prescribed a corset that cured the pain, but prevented her from working in the confines of the tiny jet and her airborne career was over. (I have a curious feeling that the Pan American stewardess above would have trouble working in those heels as well).



Whether girdles were mandatory for airline stewardesses or not, it didn't stop a number of manufacturers alluding to the fact. (Sky-Hi girdles for example.) United Air Lines Stewardess, Mary Jo Wheatley wrote the following testimonial for Vectra support stockings in 1961:-

"We are so hard on stockings. For a long time I went through a pair of nylons every 48 hours. But hosiery made with Vectra lasted more than a week and still made me feel more dressed up." Reading beyond the advertising, and my friend confirms this, stockings and tights do not last long in the cramped conditions of the modern aeroplane.


The ever practical British Airways realised that stockings simply did not last, and nothing looks cheaper than a laddered stocking. The solution was numbers and BA provided large supplies of both stockings and support stockings to their stewardesses.


British Airways support stockings were

available to the cabin crew. Each pack contains a

dozen stockings. This was considered adequate

for a month's tour of, say, six flights.


Since stockings do not stay up unaided, one can surmise that many stewardesses did wear girdles in those days*, but so did their hard-working peers like nurses and the long-suffering housewife. Women wear what other women wear; stewardesses were not exceptional!


*Those days may have been surprising late since British Airways was only formed in 1974. Aer Lingus also put its name on branded stockings. This lovely example contains so many dating clues, the aeroplane, the uniform and the words "Bri-nylon" that a date in the late 1950's early 1960's can be guaranteed. This seems more in line with stocking wearing, however, it may be that the attrition rate on stockings kept them more popular than tights for air crew.


We learned recently (2019) that in the late 1960s, Air New Zealand expected its stewardesses to wear girdles, however, there was no check ever made other than to ensure that the deportment of their airborne staff was up to standard.


British Caledonian Airways



British Caledonian Airways (1970's - 90's) and latterly Caledonian Airways (1990's), in their manual for stewardesses, does not mention foundation garments other than brassieres that had to be white so as to match the white blouse that went with the uniform. Coloured bras were forbidden.

The Caledonian uniforms were widely regarded as the neatest and prettiest in the business (far left), but what do we have here? Stewardess Jane, for that is what her badge proclaims, shows a slight blue and green tinge (left). As she hangs her head in shame at inspection (right), not only the coloured brassiere is visible, but the high waist of her girdle as well. Sorry Jane, your girdle should be waist length and your bra should be white!

A purist might note that the uniform here is a 1990's Caledonian tartan and Jane wears a distinctly 1970's Marks and Spencer patterned bra and a late 1960's Sears girdle, however, the uniform style is identical to the 1970's version when even such a pretty young thing as Jane might have been wearing such underwear.


An old colleague who was in the WRNS (in the 1960's) summed up the whole issue of what lies beneath the uniform:- "I wore a girdle because all my friends did. There was a standard issue girdle but it was hideous and I wore Marks and Spencer's best. The important feature was the six suspenders. Having a stocking sag whilst marching was unthinkable and we relied on safety in numbers. I also had a 'marching bra'; not the Navy's name but quite commonly used amongst us Wrens. It didn't do to have one's breasts bouncing up and down on parade! It looked awful and was very uncomfortable!"


Apparently, in the US forces in the early 1960's at least, a girdle was not required to be worn, however, it was part of the mandatory issue and had to be displayed at inspection.


Triumph, amongst others used the stewardess as a glamorous figure to promote their wares, however, I doubt that any stewardess would wear THAT under her uniform.




Pan Am and Girdles    submitted by Roger

In the fall of 2011 a weekly network show debuted on ABC in America about the adventures of a group of Pan Am stewardesses in the early 1960s. It was called, simply, “Pan Am.” Authentic “period” undies as then prescribed by Pan Am were worn to give the correct “look.” The actresses and the costume designer were interviewed by TV Guide and asked about them and also by Here are their answers:


For Pan Am star Christina Ricci, wearing the airline's iconic '60s flight attendant uniforms not only make her look the part, but also feel the part. And it all begins with squeezing into the historically accurate underwear.

"We have these undergarments that we wear, a girdle [OBG style, as revealed in a couple of half-dressed scenes], and a longline bra," Ricci told reporters in September. "The girdle keeps you from being able to do anything boyish like run or jump or take any large flights of stairs. The longline is a bra attached [with girdle hooks] to a mini-corset [her interpretation of an OBG] so it basically makes you stand up really, really straight. ... You have to walk like a lady at all times, so immediately you're just put into this mindset of 'I'm a lady. I sit a certain way. I walk a certain way.'"

Costume designer Ane [sic] Crabtree:  [It's important] to build from the inside out for these actors because it's so psychological. They're very young kids. They were never around in the '60s. There is a different physicality from the '60s to now in how we hold ourselves. And the clothes just fit better [with these undergarments] believe it or not. It's not something that I would readily think of in 2011, but you know with this whole preponderance of Spanx, it makes things better.

The reason for the girdle was so that they didn't jiggle because it wasn't ladylike. The girdle just kept everything very, very close to the body and contained. And when you have a bullet bra on, which is a longline [in this instance], you didn't want to be poking through your bra if it was cold, if you know what I mean. So, those bras were thicker than what we have today. With those [longline] bullet bras, you have to stand straight or else you look silly and it ruins the line.

The uniform jacket and skirt couldn't be too tight because that would be considered inelegant. It couldn't pull in the bra area. Who would want that? And it couldn't be too tight in the derrière because if it's too tight over the girdle, it shows and you don't want that either. Also, you couldn't have flashy jewellery. You needed a really simple watch and small earrings. The shoes had to be clean and polished. Very military, right? Two- to three-inch heel, slender, not too pointed.

Hmmm: That looks like an awfully modern Rago girdle to me. If Miss Ricci thinks that girdle is confining, she should try a real 1960s girdle! - Ivy

Playtex, like many other brands, capitalised on the glamour of the airline stewardess, in this case a Pan American lovely. Whether she is hot at her tropical destination, working hard in the cabin, or on a date in the coolness of New York, she wears her Golden Playtex girdle with '7-way stretch' (whatever that means). This brings us back to the hoary old question of stewardesses and girdles. Whether girdles were mandatory or not, let us put it this way: women wear what other women wear and in the 1950s most fashionable women wore girdles. To be honest, Playtex realised that wearing raw latex next to the skin could, and indeed did, get very sweaty hence the emphasis on the 'cool' cloth lining.


Did flight attendants really have to wear girdles back in the day?

Yes, indeed, says Valerie Waterman . . . . The year was 1970, and 20-year-old Waterman had just received her letter of acceptance to Pan Am's stewardess training program. Included in the letter was a reminder to show up wearing a girdle.

"They wanted you to be smooth, because, well, some people can ripple a little bit," Waterman noted, then laughingly added, "Me, I ripple all over the place now!"

As for the girdle, she never wore it again once training classes were over. "I was 5 feet 3, and weighed 100 pounds soaking wet," she says. “Yes, they had weigh-ins occasionally . . . .”