I’ve been a collector for as long as I can remember. I’m especially drawn to fabric items like these unique TWA uniforms. Occasionally, I’ve seen this uniform for sale online, but I have no space for more fabric. Instead, for the last year, I’ve been corralling photos of TWA hostesses wearing the cut-out uniform designed by Howard Greer and Ida Staggers.
In cataloguing all the photos, I’ve noticed an anomaly–some of these uniform jackets have three buttons, others have four buttons. The difference seemed so obvious, that I was surprised I’d not noticed before. When or why that change happened, we’ll never know. I have dates for a few of the photos. One, dated 1948, shows Violet Sweeney Ward wearing her three button uniform. It seems that sometime during the eleven years, 1944-1955, the uniform was worn there was at least one modification to the design.
Of course, we are exploring more than what these working women wore to work. The material reality of what the airline, as employer, chose for the hostess uniform reflects the airline’s image of the women they hired.
Author Angelica Rose Gertel reminds us that after WWII, everywhere in the U.S. “Companies actively placed limitations to prevent the advancement of women in the workplace, presuming that women had taken jobs that could have instead been given to veterans.” In this climate, “The airplane offered an escape from the jobs normally permitted to women in the wartime and post war era. While the position of flight attendant emerged from nursing, or traditional women’s work, it offered an unprecedented opportunity for freedom through scheduling. While enforcing social standards of femininity and domesticity, flight attendants broke the conventional image of ideal womanhood.”1 Gertel added, some women wanted “to explore the world by air. Many women simply loved the exhilaration that flying had to offer.”2
Working aloft permitted women a great amount of independence, yet flying did have risks. Accidents in this era were not uncommon, crashes were often fatal. Sixty-four flight attendants have died since 1938 when CAB record keeping began. (This figure does not include unscheduled airlines.)3 This figure does include the twenty-five flight attendants (twenty women and five men) who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Here is a link to a moving tribute to those women and men working aloft in those three U.S. airliners. https://thepointsguy.com/news/remembering-the-8-pilots-and-25-flight-attendants-who-died-on-9-11/
“The stewardess [or hostess] can be viewed as the airline’s image of the women they hired, heavily promoted through advertising to the public.” “4 The airline’s image of the women they hired to work as air hostesses is quite clear in all of these publicity photos. I’ve discovered these photos online because they were meant to be publicity, that is carefully crafted images controlled by the company. Candid photos of flight attendants at work are rare. Each airline intends to keep tight control of their image especially today in the age of handy cell phone photos.
In this era at TWA, the women wearing the cut-out uniform were generally flying on the porpoise-shaped plane with the distinctive three tail fins I described earlier, the Lockheed Constellation. see: http://paulamariedaughter.com/?p=2776 These two icons, uniform and aircraft, share an intertwined history.
I’m always searching, and hoping for first person accounts of flying from women who have “worked the skies”. I’ve found several to share with you. Sometimes tracking down a photo leads me to a woman’s story. Sometimes it’s a lucky find from persistent internet searches.
“Aunt Vi’s flying career started in a simple way. On a Saturday morning in 1947, her mother suggested that she visit a cousin who was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. So Aunt Vi took the streetcar to his home at 80th and Justine. Fatefully, he had been reading the paper recently and told her that TWA was advertising for air hostesses in Chicago and that she should go for an interview.”
Read about Aunt Violet’s adventures at TWA from 1945-1958 as told to her niece: https://www.travelingwithsweeney.com/traveling-with-sweeney-twa-air-hostess/
“TWA wanted all the exposure it could get to promote its brand and product. The company arranged publicity and promotional events—anything to get our name in film or print. Today it is called ‘product placement’. (See the Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face.) The company usually used real TWA hostesses rather than hiring models, I got to be in some of the publicity shots and special events.”5
The illusion of glamour attached to the stewardess or hostess of this period “was so widely recognized that advertisers deployed it to sell their own products.”6 In the photo below, the Hotpoint stove in the window display has a hostess, in her cut-out TWA uniform, gesturing to the hostess outside also in uniform. Signs in the display repeat the advertising quip, “Sisters under the skin” twice.
At center we see Barbie dressed in a 1940s cut-out uniform with the tiny TWA logo on her right shoulder–true proof this is a cultural icon of a uniform! At right we see a vintage set of TWA hostess paper dolls–I wonder if the “blous-slip” garment is included in her uniform set?
Speaking of anomalies–did you notice the quite different TWA cut-out uniform worn by Audrey McNamara Nevis when she is seated by Tyrone Power? Her uniform looks like blue linen, and she’s wearing a white blouse with a rounded collar–one more mystery for me to ponder!
Backstory on the Tyrone Power and TWA Connection
After discovering the photo of Audrey McNamara Nevis seated with Tyrone Power and then another earlier photo online of Power with two TWA hostesses dressed in the previous uniforms, ie the 1938-1944 era, I kept searching for a possible connection between TWA and Power. I did discovered connections between Howard Hughes and Power. Both were pilots and part of Hollywood movie people in the 1930s and 1940s. The ad in the photo below appeared a year before the U.S. entered WWII.
Power enlisted in the Marine Corps in August, 1942 as an experienced pilot. The Marine Corps considered Power, at 28, over the age limit for active combat flying. Power volunteered for piloting cargo planes believing this would get him into active combat zones. He flew missions carrying cargo in and wounded Marines out during the Battles of Iwo Jima (Feb-Mar 1945) and Okinawa (Apr-Jun 1945).
It seems like “the old-boys network”, enjoying their “man-size” cabin, connected these three! TWA pilot Robert (Bob) Buck spent three months as co-pilot with Power and a small retinue traveling in Power’s plane on a tour of South America, Africa and Europe in the fall 1947. TWA’s owner, Hughes, enlisted Bob Buck to fly with Power on that trip. Source: http://www.ladyevesreellife.com/2012/08/remembering-tyrone-power.html
1 “Not just a pretty face: The evolution of the flight attendant”, Angelica Rose Gertel, 2014 James Madison University p.38-39
2 Gertel p.36
3 Gertel p.35
4 Gertel p.45
5 Try Walking Across, Helen Parker Holden p. 193
6 Gertel p.35
Please send me any photos you find that are not in my collection.