Museum of Flight showing 75 years of flying in style
On Saturday, the Museum of Flight opened an exhibit called "Style in the Aisle," which runs through June 2. On display are 75 years of flight-attendant...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Style in the Aisle
Dates: Through June 2
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Where: Museum of Flight, 9404 E. Marginal Way S., Seattle
Admission: adults, $14; seniors, $13; ages 5-17, $7.50; under 5, free
She was 23, 5-foot-4 and 120 pounds — a size 6 with nice hair, wholesome looks, a pretty smile and a natural confidence. She was single and had no plans to marry.
In other words, the perfect candidate for a stewardess job with United Airlines.
"They were looking for the girl next door," Peggy Verger remembered.
Of 39 young women applying that day in 1966 in Rochester, N.Y., Verger was the only one chosen to go to United's six-week stewardess-training school in Chicago.
She went on to work 37 years as a United flight attendant, retiring in 2003, and she has plenty of stories.
So when Verger was contacted by Annie Mejia — an exhibit developer with the Museum of Flight in Seattle — she was more than glad to help.
On Saturday, the museum opened an exhibit called "Style in the Aisle," which runs through June 2.
On display are 75 years of flight-attendant uniforms, photos, TV commercials, print ads, taped interviews and airline memorabilia. Verger's memories go back for half of that time.
She remembers when stewardesses were checked to make sure they were wearing the mandatory girdle. (A female supervisor did a pinch test.)
She remembers when supervisors scanned wedding notices in local newspapers to make sure the young women hadn't broken the no-husband rule. If they did, they had to quit.
She remembers every night putting Dippity-do styling gel on her spit curls, wiping the excess off, and taping the curls to her cheeks. Those curls went with her "bubble" hairstyle, standard for stewardesses. Sometimes, at the beginning of flights, she'd notice the red mark where that tape had been.
For some time, the museum had been looking for a way to display some 100, mostly donated, flight-attendant uniforms stored in its basement, in dark, climate-controlled rooms to preserve the fabric.
The changing styles of flight-attendant uniforms — from a military look to haute couture, to miniskirts, go-go boots and hot pants, and now to the utilitarian blue pants outfits or skirts — reflect how times have changed, said Chris Mailander, director of exhibits.
Verger is 64, and even when she's at home by a rural lake in Renton, she dresses with care.
She kept every one of her United outfits, some from high-fashion designers. One of them, along with other memorabilia, will be displayed at the exhibit.
Mejia is 32, has a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics, and tends toward dyed red hair and cargo pants. She found out what a girdle looked like from an old magazine ad.
Verger and Mejia got along famously — the latter being a big fan of the jet age that encompassed the 1960s, before she was born.
"I really like that retro-style stuff," she said. "Everything was streamlined, like airplanes."
Verger even presented Mejia with a 1968 Jean Louis-designed United attendant's coat nicknamed "The Skimmer." Verger had noticed how Mejia loved its bright orange color.
The project, for Mejia, was about more than clothing. "It dawned on me that their history is very proud," she said about flight attendants.
For example, the name Ellen Church is unknown to most Americans, but known to many, if not most, flight attendants.
In 1930, Church, a registered nurse, led seven other nurses to become the "Original Eight," the first official stewardesses. She had approached Steve Simpson of Boeing Air Transport, which became United Airlines, about becoming a pilot.
Instead, the two came up with the job of turning nurses into stewardesses as a three-month experiment.
"Passenger travel in the early days was very rough and uncomfortable," the exhibit points out. "Airplanes were small and slow, unpressurized, and vulnerable to air turbulence."
Early passengers shared the plane with the mail cargo that was the primary reason for the flights. They got to experience throwing up, unpleasant temperatures and a lot of noise.
Passengers appreciated having a nurse aboard, even though pilots complained at first. Some pilots would not talk to the stewardesses, according to a history on the United Airlines Web site.
To give pilots their due, stewardesses were told that "a rigid military salute will be rendered the captain and co-pilot as they go aboard ... "
The three-month experiment was declared a success. Church became one of the first women in management in the airlines, putting together standards for this new occupation.
Soon, the glamour associated with pilots spread to stewardesses.
One stewardess was in a plane in the 1930s that ran out of gas and landed in a wheat field near Cherokee, Wyo.
Inez Keller, another of the Original Eight, remembered the locals coming in wagons and on horseback to see the plane — and her. "One of them called me 'the angel from the sky,' " she said.
But even back then, a stewardess' day-to-day responsibilities were less than glamorous.
Duties described in the original 1930 Stewardess Manual included:
"Check the floor bolts on the wicker seats in the Ford TriMotor to make sure they are securely fastened down. Swat flies in cabin after take off. Warn passengers against throwing lighted smoking butts or other objects out the windows, particularly over populated areas."
At the "Style in the Aisle" exhibit, you can pretty much tell the decade by what stewardesses wore.
• Longer skirts, white gloves, girdles, hats, and black-and-white spectator shoes. That would the late 1940s into the late 1950s. Stewardesses were considered "wives-in-training." They were expected to be "sincere listeners" and to avoid "unladylike" conversations with passengers. "The popular view was that these women were as skilled in preparing a milk bottle for a baby as mixing cocktails," explains the exhibit.
• Hot pants, miniskirts or an Emilio Pucci-designed "Air Strip" collection for Braniff International? That would be the swinging '60s, baby, and the era grooved on until the early '70s.
The 1965 Braniff ensemble consisted of layers of clothing, beginning with a reversible coat that the stewardess slipped off during the flight. Doffing more clothing as the flight progressed, she ended up with a "way-out" turtleneck and gaucho pants outfit.
Attractive stewardesses became a major marketing tool. In 1971, the now-defunct National Airlines began a suggestive "I'm Cheryl. Fly me," ad campaign (other first names of stewardesses also were used). The airline said revenue increased by a fifth, despite protests by NOW, the National Organization for Women.
But times were changing. In the 1970s, restrictions on age, weight, sex and marital and parental status were eliminated. More men joined the field, and "flight attendant" became the official title. Today, men make up about a fifth of the work force.
• A functional navy blue suit or pants outfit with bow tie ensemble? It's the late 1980s to the present. Welcome to deregulation, consolidation, cost-cutting and the post 9/11 era. And forget the glamour days. Airlines struggled after the terrorist attack. Flight attendants lost jobs. There were wage and benefit cuts.
Fearful passengers became jittery and frustrated because of long lines, delays and packed flights. Reports of air rage on the part of passengers became common.
Peggy Verger still flies, but as a passenger. Now, when she flies, looking around at her fellow travelers, she can't help but notice how they dress — "sweats, shorts, now anything goes."
Verger remembers what it was like four decades ago. Male passengers wore a suit and tie; women wore dresses, hats, high heels. They had manners, she said, and treated attendants with respect.
But those days, she knows, along with the Jean Louis-designed outfits, are long gone.
"It was a big deal to fly," Verger said. "We'll never go back to that."
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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