Monday, August 20, 2012

Who is Sexy Now? New Book Traces Evolution of Stewardesses

Watching the air show from Revel Resort
At Revel, the fancy resort where I watched Atlantic City's airshow, the weekend was dubbed, Come Fly With Me.

At the bar, specially created nightcaps had enticing names like; Up, Up and Away, Howard Hughes, The Earhart, and Wright on Track. Promotional material put out by the resort said these drinks were inspired by the desire to bring back the glamor days of air travel. (That a casino operator is longing for the romance of times past didn't come as much of a surprise; shorts and Hawaiian print shirts being the outfit of choice at most of them these days but that's another story.)

At dawn the morning of the air show, I struck up a conversation with another tourist on the boardwalk. She told me the night before she'd run into a group of air show pilots, still in their flight suits, as she got off the elevator at a nearby hotel where she was having dinner. That the encounter was exciting enough to have her talking about it to a perfect stranger made me question the assumption that aviation's glamor days are gone.

Air show performers fly over Atlantic City on August 17th

Aerobatic pilot John Klatt in 2011
Those air show pilots are a spicy lot, and when it comes to macho, I give high scores to people like John Klatt the aerobatic pilot for the Air National Guard who took me flying in his Extra 300 L last year before the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach. (Click here to see the cockpit video of the flight.)

On my way home from New Jersey, I opened up the just published book Skygirls by Bruce McAllister and Stephan Wilkinson and once again, I'm rethinking the glamor question.

Described as a "photographic history of the stewardess" this coffee-table sized book is much more than great photos of an earlier time, it is a stunning journey from the earliest commercial flights to air travel as we know it today.

Stewardesses representing each 747 customer. Photo courtesy Boeing

It is also a collection of all things "stewardess" from the highly visible and well-studied evolution of their uniforms (of course!) to the historic and little known duties that were once part of the job, cleaning out on board lavatories and fishing out the dentures passengers accidently upchucked into vomit cups.

Pan Am had "legs for long-haul flights" or so went the ad.
Without getting too pedantic, McAllister and Wilkinson explain the ambivalent role flight attendants played in the dawning of the women's movement. "The Pioneer-era stewardesses represented at the same time, feminists and anti-feminisists," they write. Early stewardesses were working, traveling, taking care of themselves and learning about independence. At the same time, the more exciting they became as a symbol of the modern woman, the more their airlines sought to pimp them. Of the airlines, the writers say, "They no longer had to tout routes and airplanes, destinations and pressurization. They had stewardesses to sell."


And of course from there, it doesn't take too much of a leap to get to the ickiest subject the writers tackle in Skygirls,  flight attendant-genre porn.

Well, that's as much into that area as I'm gonna go. I'd prefer to focus on some of the delightful surprises in Skygirls chatty love paean to stewardesses;

PSA stewardesses play basketball Photo courtesy Bruce McAllister
  • The PSA Jets - a basketball team of Pacific Southwest Airlines flight attendants. 
  • Betty Haas Pfister, the stewardess hired by Pan Am in 1948 with 1,000 flight hours ferrying warplanes as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots
  • British Airways Dreamflights volunteers, flight attendants who donate their services and their time to take terminally ill children to Disney World and serve as their chaperones for their entire 10-day stay.

Whether you believe the glamor is gone may depend on just how miserable you were on your last trip by air, but there's an argument to be made for the idea that glamor and novelty go hand in hand. Once we get too familiar with anything it can't help but tarnish the luster. That's why air shows are still thrilling - we don't see them often enough to get tired of them.

There's always the airline willing to keep playing the flight attendant-sex-appeal card, as evidenced by this video of VietJetAir sending bikini-clad gals down the aisle of their first flight to Hawaii.  Authorities fined the low cost carrier for failing to get proper approval for the video.


But like pilots, today's flight attendants have a rich back story. I recommend Skygirls version of it to anyone who believes that aviation was romantic, or who agrees with me that - warts and all - it always will be.

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