I’ve been fascinated by the design of this 1944-1955 TWA hostess uniform and the story behind it since I first saw it in photographs. These uniforms were designed by Howard Greer, a Hollywood designer, and are known as the “cut-out” uniform because of the openwork TWA lettering on the right shoulder.
If my mother, Marie, had not married in 1944, but had sought a job as an air hostess with TWA, she would have admired these uniforms too! Marie liked tailored, practical clothes and she liked to “look nice”–this was her highest praise. I’m sure she would have appreciated the classic styling, but she would have especially liked the unique feature that allowed women to appear at work in their uniform at one moment, the next moment they could be officially out-of-uniform. As a smoker, this feature would have appealed to her.
By removing her hat, then unbuttoning the triangular flap on her right shoulder, a hostess could conceal the TWA logo—thus she would not be on-duty or in uniform! Now she wore a designer suit with covered buttons and unique detailing at each shoulder. Both summer and winter uniforms displayed this feature.
As a group, TWA’s air hostesses worked long days and spent much of the month away from their home bases. She needed a uniform which was sturdy but still flattering after long days at work. An air hostess also needed her uniform to be versatile since she was limited by how much luggage she could carry on board. Company regulations did not permit a hostess to chew gum, smoke or drink alcoholic beverages while in uniform.1
The summer blue wool gabardine ensemble is the one most often seen in photographs. Each letter of the TWA logo was outlined in red stitching—the same red required for lipstick and nail varnish. The jacket is fitted at the waist and the skirt falls just below the knee and features a kick-pleat in back. The suit was manufactured by Briny Marlin Coat & Suit Company.2 Wool has been used extensively in year-round suits for women and for men for decades since wool resists abrasion, drapes well and wrinkles little. Wool gabardine is a twill-woven cloth known for its smoothness and durability.
In looking back on women’s fashions during WWII, Rachel H. Kemper wrote, “The combination of neat blouses and sensibly tailored suits became the distinctive attire of the working woman, college girl, and young society matron.”3 Knowing this, I asked myself, “How would an experienced Hollywood costume and fashion designer like Greer create a unique version of the basic “sensible tailored suit”?
None of Howard Greer’s professional credentials mention that he had designed the popular “cut-out” uniform that TWA hostesses wore for over a decade. We know that this unusual design was introduced in 1944 and worn nationwide until 1955.4 If the uniforms were introduced in 1944, the designing and manufacturing probably began in late 1942 or early 1943. What airline executive would consider changing their hostess uniforms in the midst of a war and with the war rationing of fabric? Someone with an expansive eye for the future and money to spend!
Millionaire Howard Hughes, both pilot and movie-maker, was a controlling force at TWA for decades starting in 1939. He was adept at creating publicity for TWA and certainly was looking to position TWA as an aviation leader once the war was over. All that is known. After considerable sleuthing, I have an “educated guess” that Hughes hired Greer to design the new hostess uniforms for TWA!
In 1930 Hughes was a Hollywood producer and director. The epic aviation war film, Hell’s Angels, was the most expensive movie to be made at the time. Hell’s Angels was an early “talkie” movie and starred 18 year old Jean Harlow. Howard Greer was the costume designer for that movie which took almost three years to make.
I believe it is safe to assume that Hughes knew Greer and his skill as a designer. I’m not aware of any other Hollywood fashion designer who has ever been hired by an airline to design flight attendant uniforms. It’s likely that Hughes trusted his own judgment after having worked with Greer on that movie.
The previous uniforms had been designed by Gladys Entriken, TWA’s chief hostess and were introduced in 1938 at the lavish opening of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. That would be the last time a woman had the opportunity to design uniforms for TWA flight crews. See photos of those earlier uniforms here: http://paulamariedaughter.com/?paged=2
However, several sources indicate that after suggestions from supervisor of TWA hostess services, Ida Staggers, Greer introduced the “blous-slip,” a combined blouse and undergarment that did not need constant tucking in.5 Picture a navy blue slip with the upper half being a collarless blouse (as seen above). The shiny surface created by the satin weave of the rayon fibers bolstered the reputation of rayon as “artificial silk”.
After months of research, only this week did I find a full description and a picture of this useful garment! The navy blue “blous-slip” has a rear neck zipper and a side zipper. Below the left shoulder, the TWA letters are embroidered in red. Thus, if the hostess removed her jacket in-flight, her blouse would clearly identify her as a TWA employee. Surprisingly, this blous-slip also has a small triangular flap that buttons above the logo allowing it to be dropped to conceal the letters when she was wearing it when off-duty. (See collage above.)
Wing on Your Hat?
It’s my understanding that the women working as air hostesses were required to wear their hat whenever in uniform, including in-flight. This seems to be the case in each of the vintage videos I’ve viewed. Apparently, hats were an integral part of the hostess image at TWA since the same basic style upsweep style in different fabrics and colors was worn from 1938 to 1960! No jewelry could be worn with the uniform.
The sturdy blue wool hat featured a left upsweep to the crown which was accented with a red and blue cockade, that is, an ornamental knot of red and blue ribbons. The silver hostess wing was pinned to the center of the ribbon cockade—you can see a ceremonial pinning of the single wing during this time period at the end of the video, Airline Glamour Girls, made in 1949 and mentioned below. Hats were one of the few pieces of clothing not rationed during WWII. This oversight encouraged a lot of attention to be paid to these accessories. The hat carried the label: Leci Original.
As you can see in the first photo on this blog, both hostesses carry a medium size shoulder bag on their left shoulder to avoid covering the cut-out TWA logo. Since the blouse is navy blue we can assume the handbag and shoes were navy blue too. A dark overcoat is also part of the uniform, no description or photo–just a glimpse in the following film. I’ve not found any still photos that illustrate the luggage carried by the women who wore the cut-out uniforms. In the 1952 TWA promotional film, About Your Flight, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNHye5xGvpE it is clear that the luggage the women carried was about the size of a modern piece of carry-on luggage—not room for much at all.6
Transcontinental becomes Trans World
When these new uniforms were commissioned about 1942 or 1943, the TWA actually meant Transcontinental & Western Airlines. After the war, TWA gained international routes that had formerly been reserved for Pan Am. Hughes chose to change the name to Trans World Airlines to emphasize its worldwide routes—different name, but using the same TWA acronymn.
In 1945, every Constellation airship used by the government during the war was quickly repainted in the red and white TWA colors. The air hostesses, in their snazzy new uniforms, were quite excited to be flying on the “Connie” since cabin pressurization and smooth flying made their jobs easier. Easier, until the Super-Constellation came online in the 1951 with almost double the number of passenger seats–increasing their workload for the same pay.
Additionally, because of their high altitude and physically taxing working conditions, air hostesses and stewardesses were among the first to experience the discomfort of what is now called “jet lag”! Previously, it was uncommon to travel far and fast enough to cross multiple time zones which can create sleep disturbances, fatigue, headaches, irritability, indigestion and more.
I’ve written extensively about the cut-out, my favorite of the vintage uniforms, but how did a woman get hired to fly from coast to coast or overseas during the 1940s and 1950s? I found a gem of a short film made in 1949 to answer that question. I hope you’ll click here for a short nine minute story full of authentic airline photos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9-zyLq067Y
Watching the film, Airline Glamour Girls, just brought up more questions. Here is a synopsis of the story and my thoughts.
In Airline Glamour Girls, we follow a secretary who decides she wants to work as an air hostess. She writes a letter, secures an interview. The chief hostess of the unnamed airline tells her she does not yet qualify (the nurse requirement disappeared during WWII). The chief hostess then hands her a list of “training schools”. The heroine leaves her job and apartment in New York City, travels to Minneapolis, pays $325 (almost three months salary) for an eight week training course.7
Training at the McConnell Air Hostess and Air Stewardess School begins after each girl dons her school uniform. Subjects include classes on aeronautics, geography, grooming, calisthenics, in-flight service procedures and safety concerns. Near the end of the training period, a woman in the TWA cut-out uniform comes to look her over, interview her and review her school records. “Watch for a letter from us”, our hopeful young woman is told. (Just like I was told in the fall of 1968 after they looked me over.) Her letter of acceptance arrives.
She is now off to Kansas City for two more weeks of training there before she receives her wing in a stirring scene on a windy tarmac with TWA planes in the background.
McConnell School for Air Hostesses and Stewardess
In the film, the relationship between the McConnell School and TWA is unclear—even murky from the distance of eighty years. However, I’ve pieced together some information. Zell McConnell, in a large booklet from 1951 praising her training school, described her own background as having “spent several successful years on the American stage in both dramatic and musical comedy roles.” She continued to explain she had been an instructor at a major airline’s training department before she opened her school in 1945. She is described as founder and president of the school.
However, in the book, The Airplane in American Culture, this footnote told a variation of the story, “Zell ran a string of modeling schools and set up classes to train recruits for Continental, Northwest and TWA.” 8
We can now speculate that until TWA created its own elaborate hostess training facility in Kansas City, the company used private “airline training schools” to pre-train possible candidates. Again, the airline companies were able to shift their cost of training to the individual woman who had high hopes of flying. She had no guarantee—the risk was hers. The McConnell School operated into the 1990s.
Kathleen Barry in her classic book, Femininity in Flight, A History of Flight Attendants challenges us to reconsider all we think we know about this so-called glamour job.
“Stewardesses were especially apt icons of glamorous femininity for the postwar years as working women who dramatically transcended domesticity, yet reassuringly represented it.9 Pride in being an airline ‘glamour girl’ was widely shared among stewardesses of the postwar era. The glamour of being a stewardess was a double-edged sword in many ways, an exaggeration of the constraints and benefits more generally of endeavoring to meet white, middle-class standards of feminine respectability and allure.”10
Young women were drawn to the smiling image of independence, combined with social approval, given to women who worked as air hostesses or stewardesses. The illusions of “an easy job simply pleasing people” or “entertaining as a hostess in your own living room”, as TWA stressed to us in 1969, was the illusion that kept young women eager to accept a job where they would consistently be undervalued and exploited. At the same time, employers, the general public, friends and family would see them as having a “glamorous” job and leading a “glamorous” life despite the facts.
We, women who have flown as flight attendants, are a diverse group with a wide range of life experiences and many different viewpoints. Each of us enjoyed the distinct benefits of traveling, and we coped with the unreasonable demands and expectations place on us in a variety of ways. Sometimes it was humor, as in the motto, “Another day, another tray…”
1 TWA Museum website http://twamuseumguides.blogspot.com/2017/02/presenting-case-for-twas-attendants-our.html
2 Exhibit: Fashion In Flight: A History of Airline Uniform Design https://www.sfomuseum.org/exhibitions/fashion-flight-history-airline-uniform-design/detail
3 Kemper, Rachel H: “Costume”(1992)pg. 144 (WIKI)
4 TWA Museum website http://twamuseumguides.blogspot.com/2017/02/presenting-case-for-twas-attendants-our.html
5 TWA Museum website http://twamuseumguides.blogspot.com/2017/02/presenting-case-for-twas-attendants-our.html
6 TWA promotional film, 1952 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNHye5xGvpE
7 Femininity in Flight: A History of flight Attendants, Kathleen Barry,2007,p. 46
8 footnote 5 in the article “McConnell Schools Training Stewardesses for Three Airlines” in American Aviation 10 (November 14, 1946 p48) which references footnote #26 in The Airplane in American Culture, edited by Dominick Pisano
9 Femininity in Flight: A History of flight Attendants, Kathleen Barry,2007,p. 61
10 Femininity in Flight: A History of flight Attendants, Kathleen Barry,2007,p. 58