NEW YORK – Passing out peanuts while clad in polyester, flight attendants are known for keeping their cool, not showing it, but a new appreciation for airline chic is upgrading style in domestic cabins.
While flight attendant uniforms in the 1960s and '70s were fashion-forward, featuring jaunty hats, scarves and stylish cuts, in the '80s shoulder pads and other atrocities invaded the skies.
But now some airlines are taking off with more taste in tow.
Song (search), a new airline operated by Delta, may be low-cost but it wants to look like a million bucks. The airline recently commissioned famous handbag designer Kate Spade (search) to create its uniforms, which will debut in February 2004.
Spade’s classic, contemporary style appealed to Song, said Joanne Smith, vice president of marketing for the airline.
“Our goal is to have people turn their heads when our flight attendants walk down the concourse and I think we’ll have accomplished that," she said.
She added that while only sketches of the new styles are available, staffers “are thrilled" with the upscale uniforms, and she expects the new look will impress fliers and attract customers.
“[Kate Spade] is someone who values style, but is value conscious as well, like our target market, who is female, ages 34 to 56,” said Smith.
Female employees will wear Kate Spade uniforms, while the men will don Jack Spade outfits, designed by Kate’s husband, Andy. The Spade creations consist of clothing, luggage, shoes, sunglasses, and, of course, handbags.
“The designs for Song look back to the glamour days of air travel, a time when both the flight staff and travelers often showed up on the tarmac with incredible style," Kate Spade said in a statement.
JetBlue (search), a relative newcomer that is considered a boutique airline compared to other giants, fittingly finds fashionable uniforms an essential ingredient for success. Stan Herman, a New York-based designer who was the whiz behind FedEx’s new look, crafted jetBlue’s uniforms to be both functional and fashionable.
“Great-looking uniforms project a lot more than the obvious,” said Amy Curtis-McIntyre, vice president of sales and marketing for jetBlue. “When a customer sees an employee that looks fabulous, they think, ‘If they care about the uniforms then they care about the aircraft, their on-time performance and more.’”
And lack of style is indicative of an airline's outlook, said Curtis-McIntyre.
"Domestic uniforms have not been fashion conscious and that's just another symptom of how those airlines run their business," she said. "They tend to be male-dominated businesses that don't bother to ask the front line what they want to wear."
Cliff Muskiet, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight attendant, has a passion for his profession’s uniforms and has a collection of nearly 250 of them displayed on his Web site Uniformfreak.com.
Muskiet said in an e-mail interview that it's mutually beneficial when a designer and an airline come together to produce a new look.
“The designer always gets credit and publicity when the new uniform is introduced by the airline," he said, and added that having millions of customers see the styles can also be a boon to a designer's career.
And Muskiet pointed out that besides Spade, other well-known designers have fashioned airline uniforms, citing Yves Saint Laurent for Qantas, Calvin Klein for SAS Scandinavian Airlines and Ralph Lauren for TWA.
The height of fashion in the sky was in the late 1960s and 1970s, said Muskiet, when “there were the short skirts, mini dresses, hot pants and A-line dresses made of thick synthetic fabrics and bright and psychedelic colors."
But Muskiet has yet to be impressed by newer U.S. uniforms.
"Today, most airline uniforms look like business outfits," he said. "You can hardly see the difference between a flight attendant and a business woman."
Fashion is essential but it must be functional to fly, Curtis-McIntyre emphasized.
“They are on their feet, running around, working long hours, so comfort is necessary, but great flight attendants are such because they have ... a desire to be able to stand in front of people, so there is a certain aesthetic they take seriously,” she said.
“They want to look good — and they have to put this thing on every day too.”