Sky-high fashion: From couture to cabin

Big-name fashion designers are collaborating with airlines to produce stylish new flight attendant uniforms that are anything but boring.

The Alitalia flight crew. Image credit: Alitalia
The Alitalia flight crew. Image credit: Alitalia

While the word uniform may bring to mind sack-like dresses, cheap fabrics, and ill-fitting polyester pants, in the airline industry this couldn’t be further from the truth. The high-fashion designer uniforms worn by flight attendants today are anything but boring and offer a lasting connection to air travel’s extravagant past.

Collaborations between famous fashion designers and airlines have a long history, but in the early years of commercial air travel, flight attendant uniforms were similar to those worn by nurses and weren’t designed to stylish. This changed in 1944 when Hollywood fashion designer Howard Greer consulted for Trans World Airlines (TWA) in the creation of a new uniform, which was much more fashion-focused.

Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) hostess uniform, 1944. Image credit: SFO Museum Collection
Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) hostess uniform, 1944. Image credit: SFO Museum Collection

The new look was still functional and utilitarian, but with a much slimmer, more modern silhouette. The jacket even included a clever little flap which could be unbuttoned to cover the TWA logo, so hostesses could wear the uniform outside hours. This was the first time a noteworthy designer became involved in the design and creation of an airline uniform, marking the beginning of an ongoing trend.

Designer collaborations are more popular today than ever before, always attracting a decent amount of media attention. The headlines were dominated by Turkish Airlines last year, whose Ettore Bilotta-designed uniforms won the DesignAir Best New Uniform 2018 Award. In shades of deep red, soft blue, and grey, the uniform incorporates the patterns found in Turkish glassware and ceramics, combining the shapes and colors found in Istanbul and the Bosphorus.

For airlines, uniforms offer an incredible marketing opportunity. The level of interaction customers have with flight attendants is high; from check-in, bag drop, and boarding, to onboard safety demonstrations and meal services. Uniforms are an effective way for airlines to communicate their brand, through color and style, and by incorporating elements that echo the origin and roots of the airline.

Movie starlet Elsye Knox posing as Delta stewardess, wearing wearing 1940-1942 Winter Delta flight attendant uniform. Image credit: Delta
Movie starlet Elsye Knox posing as Delta stewardess, wearing wearing 1940-1942 Winter Delta flight attendant uniform. Image credit: Delta

While airlines occasionally find themselves in hot water for strict rules regarding personal grooming and dress expectations, recent designs show the health and comfort of employees is a high priority for airlines.

Turkish Airlines tested their fabrics and garments extensively both in-air and in a range of climates to ensure comfort, while Delta Airlines’ uniforms by Zac Posen were designed with a range of body shapes and sizes in mind. It’s collaborations like these that show uniforms can be both fashion-forward, and conscious.

We’ve outlined some of the most stylish collaborations between fashion designers and airlines over the years that you’ll spot in the skies today.

Ettore Bilotta for Turkish Airlines

We’ve already mentioned Turkish Airlines, but their chic new Ettore Bilotta uniform, which was designed to celebrate the airline’s 85-year history, deserves additional mention. The collection is inspired by modern Istanbul as an intersection between the West and East, and includes an extensive range of accessories including gloves, bags, scarves, along with a particularly stylish hat.

Perhaps more impressive than the uniform itself is the ultra-glamorous advertising campaign with which it was released. Shot by British Photographer and artist Miles Aldridge, the campaign looks like something out of Vogue. Elegant men and women model the high-fashion pieces in a number of Istanbul locations, including along the banks of the Bosphorus and in a bustling spice bazaar.

Alberta Ferretti for Alitalia

One of the most recent collaborations to hit the skies is Alberta Ferretti’s newly designed uniform for Italian airline Alitalia. The look for Alitalia employees is classic, pared back, and professional, which is miles away from the airline’s previous uniform, which included two-piece suits in eye-popping shades of red and green.

Alitalia staff in Alberta Ferretti-designed uniforms. Image credit: Alitalia
Alitalia staff in Alberta Ferretti-designed uniforms. Image credit: Alitalia

Ferretti was inspired by the creativity and elegance of her native Italy, and the new uniforms look expensive, in an understated and sophisticated way. Women can choose between a skirt suit or a simple shift dress, while men wear a slimline suit. All of the core pieces are a classic navy blue and made in a high-quality, finely-woven wool gauze that is breathable and comfortable to wear. Alitalia’s signature red and blue colors can still be spotted as subtle accents on belts, scarves, ties, and pockets.

Laurence Xu for Hainan Airlines

Laurence Xu’s uniform for Hainan Airlines staff is so cutting-edge, it debuted at Paris Couture Week. The color palette is soft and tranquil, in shades of ash grey, cream, and blue, with whimsical printed garments that incorporate watercolor-esque clouds, birds, and Chinese imperial motifs. According to the airline, the designer was inspired by “the cloudy skies through which we soar”, a mood he has captured with great success.

The uniform includes traditional Chinese garments such as cheongsam dresses for women and standing-collar jackets for men, as well as double-breasted coats and a 40s style cape.

Zac Posen for Delta Air

American designer Zac Posen has dressed the likes of Natalie Portman, Rihanna, and Michelle Obama, but his newly designed uniforms for Atlanta-based Delta Air prove he’s got more to offer than red carpet showstoppers.

To understand the needs of staff both in-air and on the ground, Posen shadowed Delta employees in various roles. He served peanuts and coffee onboard alongside flight attendants, and worked as a gate agent at JFK.

Kiki and Chad modeling Delta's new uniforms. Image credit: Delta
Kiki and Chad modeling Delta’s new uniforms. Image credit: Delta

The result is an extensive range of mix-and-match pieces so staff can pick and choose their uniform to suit their style and body shape. The collection includes comfy jersey pieces and color-blocked shift dresses, as well as classic waistcoats, suits, and skirts. The color palette is a flattering deep plum and cherry red, with splashes of grey and white.

Due to extensive research and testing, the new uniform took three years produce from planning to launch. However, Posen managed to perfectly balance both function and style, which is a feat worth waiting for.

Martin Grant for Qantas

Martin Grant can normally be found in his Paris-based design studio, but the Australian native had an excuse to visit home in 2016 after he was tasked with the redesign of the Qantas Airways uniform. The uniform worn by staff at the time was extremely out-of-date, having been designed 13 years prior in 2003. Grant made it his mission to design a strong modern look for Qantas staff, that was both functional and stylish.

The result is a uniform that is bold and fearless, in a color palette of cherry red, bright fuschia, and navy. The strongest piece in the collection is the shift dress for female employees, which is ¾ sleeved and calf length, with bright asymmetric color-blocking across the bodice and sleeve. Paired with a matching pink or fuschia neckerchief, Qantas ladies are hard to miss on the tarmac. The men’s look is a simple, classic navy suit with a single pop of color by way of a color-blocked tie.

Prabal Gurung for ANA

Although they were designed back in 2014, Prabal Gurung’s uniforms for the staff of ANA are still some of the most stylish in the air today. The Nepalese-born, New York-based designer was inspired by the airline’s clean and modern aesthetic and created a look that’s both simple and timeless.

Prabal Gurung-designed uniforms for ANA. Image credit: ANA
Prabal Gurung-designed uniforms for ANA. Image credit: ANA

While the uniform at its core is quite basic, with a range of charcoal grey skirts, pants, jackets, and crisp white shirts, it stands out for its eye-catching accents, in the form of graphic racing stripes, contrast cuffs, and scarves and ties in electric blue. This fresh and simple uniform design is a win for both the designer and ANA’s employees.


Grace Catherine

Grace is a freelance writer and digital project manager from New Zealand currently based in Mexico City. She is an avid traveler who loves destinations with an eclectic history, a bike-sharing scheme, and plenty of cool animals.