High Fashion at San Francisco International Airport

By Lina Broydo
Lina Broydo
Lina Broydo
June 19, 2016 Updated: June 25, 2016

There is more to the San Francisco International Airport than just showing your tickets and your passport, going through the security checkpoints, schlepping your oversized carry-on luggage, and trying to figure out what to do with the mandatory pre-departure three hours.

(Braniff International Public Relations Archives, History of Aviation Collection, UT-Dallas)
(Braniff International Public Relations Archives, History of Aviation Collection, UT-Dallas)

Eureka! The San Francisco International Terminal’s SFO Museum has solved this problem by presenting a fabulous historic exhibit titled Fashion In Flight: A History of Airline Uniform Design for you to view, enjoy, and learn about the famous fashion designers who were commissioned by various airlines to add their touch of glamour, elegance, sophistication, and pizazz in outfitting the crews.

This fascinating exhibit features 70 female airline uniform ensembles and additional accessories that date from 1930 to the present time.

It chronicles the evolution of the uniform design from the in-house origins of the pre-war era to the renowned couturiers and their fashion ateliers that created and produced extraordinary collections for airlines during the 1950s to the contemporary styles of today.

From the influences of Paris, New York, and Hollywood, the inherent chic of jet-setting around the world has inspired the designers to keep the airline fashions trendy and appealing to the millions of travelers. Over 30 designers and fashion houses are represented in the exhibition. These include Adolfo, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Bill Blass, Marc Bohan, Pierre Cardin, Oleg Cassini, André Courrèges, Christian Dior, Halston, Edith Head, Stan Herman, Macario Jiménez, Christian Lacroix, Papou Lahoud, Ralph Lauren, Don Loper, Jean Louis, Hanae Mori, Jean Patou, Emilio Pucci, Ben Reig, Yves Saint Laurent, Angelo Tarlazzi, William Travilla, and Vivienne Westwood.

A History of Airline Uniform Design
Trans World Airlines flight attendant uniform by Valentino, 1971. (SFO Museum)

A History of Airline Uniform Design
Air France stewardess uniform by Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1969. (Courtesy of Air France)

A History of Airline Uniform Design
Braniff International Airways hostess uniform by Emilio Pucci, 1966. Boots by Beth Levine. (SFO Museum)

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.

A History of Airline Uniform Design
Virgin Atlantic Airways flight attendant uniform by Vivienne Westwood, 2014. (Courtesy of Virgin Atlantic Airways)

A History of Airline Uniform Design
Pan American World Airways stewardess uniform by Frank Smith for Evan-Picone, 1971. (SFO Museum)

According to the museum’s press release: “Airline uniform occupies a unique place in the history of women’s wear. For more than eighty-five years, the airlines’ passenger-service and safety professionals—variably called stewardess, hostess, and flight attendant—have been dressed in outfits designed to signify a distinct role in the workplace, project the identity of their employer, and reflect prevailing fashions of the times.”

“These often conflicting demands of singularity, diversity, and conformity have created a distinct garment type, one that has penetrated deeply into the social conscience of popular culture while providing fashion designers with remarkable challenges and creative opportunities,” it states.

The majority of the uniforms in the exhibition were selected from the permanent collection at the SFO Museum. Additional uniforms, accessories, and images have generously been made available by lenders including Aeroméxico, Air France, American Airlines C.R. Smith Museum, Delta Flight Museum, Flight Path Learning Center & Museum, Frontiers of Flight Museum LAX, The Museum of Flight, NWA History Centre, Qantas Heritage Collection, The University of Texas at Dallas, United Airlines Archive, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and other private sources.

Next time you fly out of the San Francisco International Terminal, spend some quality and enriching time viewing the SFO Museum’s historic exhibit Fashion In Flight: A History of Airline Uniform Design (on view from June 16, 2016, to Jan. 8, 2017) and many other impressive and interesting exhibits the SFO Museum curates on a regular basis.

Braniff International Airways hostesses in uniforms by Emilio Pucci, 1965. (Braniff International Public Relations Archives, History of Aviation Collection, UT-Dallas)
Braniff International Airways hostesses in uniforms by Emilio Pucci, 1965. (Braniff International Public Relations Archives, History of Aviation Collection, UT-Dallas)

The exhibits are displayed at the pre-security area of the International Terminal Main Hall and Aviation Museum and Library. The Aviation Museum and Library are open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, closed holidays and during special events. The Main Hall galleries are always open. For more information visit SFOmuseum.org or call 650-821-6700. Admission is free.

Lina Broydo writes about travel, art, entertainment, style, and sports. She worked for 22 years as director of public relations at a luxury hotel in San Jose, California, and is currently the president of STAR PR, Public Relations and Marketing Company. She lives in Los Altos Hills, California.

Lina Broydo
Lina Broydo