British Airways: up, up and away fashion through the decades

This weekend (July 29 - July 31) the Vintage at Southbank festival in London will host a catwalk show with British Airways called A Cut Above featuring cabin crew uniforms from the last seventy years.

From the plain wool dress of the 1940s made by Hardy Amies (who was dressmaker to the Queen) to the colourful paper mini dress worn in 1967 on flights from New York to the Caribbean, and the big-shouldered, striped uniform of the 1980s, all the uniforms are a reflection of the fashions of each decade by these designers.

BEA 1940s uniform by Hardy Amies (above top) and BEA uniform 1950s (above)

The women who wore these uniforms have been subjected to many names over the years - from air hostesses and trolley dollies to flight attendants and the more recent cabin crew but they made flying a glamorous pursuit.

Paul Jarvis, curator of the British Airways Heritage Collection which has many of the 450 uniforms, plus posters and assorted memorabilia says, "it was a male-dominated industry before the second World War and women were only allowed on planes in 1946 to work. In America though, Eastern Airlines introduced female crew as far back as 1934."

As Wayne Hemingway (pictured above with me and the 1960s paper dress), the co-creator of Vintage at Southbank notes: "Most people are probably more interested in the look of the BA uniforms than the look of the planes - as we all love people watching and we have hours to do that when on a plane."

I met five cabin crew women who have flown for British Airways in each of the last few decades and asked them about their lives in the sky and the uniforms they wore:


Pat Pearce, 67, joined in the 1960s at the age of 24 and still works for them today for the charity that she set up

In 1966, when I joined, the only other jobs for a young woman were secretary or nurse. Lots of us thought it was a wonderful career to get into. I had wanted to be an air hostess since about the age of nine when I’d watch the planes near my house close to Heathrow. The dress I wore in 1968 for flights between New York and the Caribbean was a paper dress in pink and orange made from a bonded fibre and was very flammable. It was a problem as everyone smoked on planes in those days. It was one-size-fits-all and you just cut the hem depending on your height! I remember being given it in NY and rushing into the airport loo to cut it to the right length, as I am not very tall. We wore it with green pumps with bejewelled stones in them. When all us girls arrived at the hotel in this bright dress after a flight people thought we were a cabaret act arriving! The dress was only uniform for six months as the girls didn’t like it on – a man designed it and a committee of men often designed them. I remember an in-house newspaper of the time said 'we even asked the girls what they thought'.

The short blue dress of the 1970s with a zip was bliss as I could wash it in the sink and let it drip dry (although it didn’t really dry very quickly) which was easier than dry cleaning. Plus we wore white gloves with this dress to greet passengers but not to serve food. Prior to this we did get vouchers for dry cleaning but the dry cleaner would always return the uniform to your hotel room in the afternoon and wake you up! We weren’t supposed to get married in those days but some girls did and just didn’t tell the airline...

Paper dress (above top) and Pat Pearce who has been with BA since the 1960s (above)


Jo Ling, joined in the 1970s and left in 1997 to raise her family

I remember Princess Diana’s make-up artist, Barbara Daly, gave lessons on looking after your skin and how to wear make-up to female crew. The tips were all about being subtle and how to choose make-up colours. In the class they gave me an astringent and my face flared up and was bright red, so when the men all came in to see everyone in their new make-up there was me sat make-up free with a crimson, blotchy face. I remember well the short blue dress mini dress uniform from the 1970s with the zip at the front (designed by Clive Evans) as it was made from Terylene and some male passengers used to try and pull the zip down. We wore this dress for four years! The uniforms were all synthetic with plastic buttons.

We also had to learn how to make cocktails like a Bloody Mary, Negroni and Manhattan but very few passengers actually asked for them. We didn’t have plastic trays with fast food but we carved joints and served drinks from crystal glasses. I flew with Princess Margaret and Roddy Llewellyn once but we had to speak to them through the bodyguard: 'Do you think ma’am would like tea?' When flying Concorde, which had just 100 seats, the uniform was heavy wool in a blue/white stripe, scarf, hat and tank top. We had a summer uniform too and it came out on a certain date: 1st June to 1st October and so if we were flying on the last day of May anywhere we had to ensure we carried it with us to change into the next day otherwise we wouldn’t be allowed to fly!

Jo Ling (above top) and one of the BA uniforms from the 1970s (above)


Morag O’Shea, 49, joined in the 1980s, starting with British Caledonian and is now British Airways ground crew at Gatwick

I worked for British Caledonian in 1988 first and on the day it switched to British Airways I flew out in my BC uniform, which was a kilt and blouse and flew back in my striped BA uniform. It was the Gatwick to Brussels return I remember. The BA uniform in 1985 was made by the only non-UK designer to design for them, a French man called Roland Klein. The blue jacket had a much bigger shoulder - well this was the 1980s! We also wore a striped blouse that was meant to be more informal but we all called it the 'deckchair'! We had to be aware too of the cultural differences in places we flew to, so in the Middle East we couldn’t show our shoulders or have our skirts too short.

Morag O'Shea (above) in British Caledonian uniform


Rebecca Wadsworth, 39, joined in the 1990s and still works for BA today

In 1992 we had a great uniform designed by Paul Costelloe which had an Aztec-design blouse, navy skirt and jacket and it was non-iron, which was essential. The gold plastic buttons also had the BA coat of arms on which I liked. I have never had anyone try to undo a zip or pitch my bottom, unlike some of the girls who worked in decades before me. Plus I am married, which wasn’t allowed in previous times but we do still have to wear make-up!

Rebecca Wadsworth (above right)


Tracey Boulton, 41, joined last year

It’s a fantastic job and I felt proud when I wore my uniform for the first time last year - I almost cried. I am glad we can now wear trousers, as I understand before that some uniforms had them and some didn’t. There are still rules on how we look - we have to wear foundation, mascara, and lipstick and can only choose from three shades of nail polish. BA have also brought the hat back as customers felt it represented the glamour of flying. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recently flew back from Canada with BA as normal 1st class passengers – the crew didn’t know who were flying with them and were told beforehand simply; 'We have VIP passengers today and they are very important'.

Current uniform designed by Julien McDonald 

BA 'rules of dressing' for female cabin crew over the decades

1) Not allowed hair over the collar – no longer applies

2) Not allowed to be seen with a cigarette when in uniform (men could)

3) Not allowed to wear uniform when not on duty – this still applies today

4) Not allowed to drink alcohol when in uniform – this still applies today

5) Must wear a hat and have the buttons done up on the uniform jacket when walking through the airport – this still applies today

6) Had to be minimum height of 5ft 4in, now 5ft 2in

7) Could only do 10 years service as a woman and couldn’t be married - no longer applies

Vintage at Southbank

For tickets and information go or Tel: 0844 847 9910 and the festival will run from Friday, July 29 – Sunday, July 31, 2011 Watch a preview film for Vintage at Southbank Centre, at

Love Lovely x