Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A proposed uniform for AirScotland? A Serbin-designed polyester dress in maroon covered with tiny unicorns would do the trick if such an airline existed. Pair it with a pill box hat in tartan, and add a sporran as a cary-on.

Long ago, I wanted to create uniforms for imaginary airlines. CossackAir, was one idea. It included a high-necked mini dress with long puffy sleeves, tall boots and a big fur hat. It would have to include a whip. I wish I could remember the other ideas, especially for Cargo Cult Air.

Mr. Cliff Muskiet, a flight attendant for KLM, has amassed over 700 uniforms, some from now defunct airlines such as PanAm that you can see beautifully photographed on his website.

I love the way nationalism leaves its goofy handprints in the strangest details. The shamrocks on the scarves and buttons of Airlingus's somber suits, the green mosaic pattern of the Royal Air Maroc scarves and the I Dream of Jeannie hats on the Gulf Air, Oman Air stewardesses. Everywhere in the details, stylized wings, airplanes or birds in flight. I love how the scarves and blouses play out the same motifs, patterns, and logos. Sometimes in different colorways. The interchangeability. The summer and winter uniforms. And the hats, oh yes, the hats.

Mr. Muskiet points out that stews hate their hats. And no wonder. It is not easy to keep a pill box hat on your head in turbulence at 40,000 feet while microwaving the ethnic cuisine of your nation for the schmucks in economy. After takeoff those lids are stowed.

Do check out Mr. Muskiet's collection for hours of amusement and inspiration.

Here are a few lovelies from Pakistan International Airlines. I love the fusion of military lines, hijab compliance, and 60s modern sass in Pierre Cardin's designs for PIA's airhostesses. This is the winter uniform. I hope those pockets are functional. Isn't it space age? I guess those 60s 3/4 wigs give a rock solid bubble shape to the duputta, while protecting hairstyle. As their website states: "The uniform consisted of a short, easy fitting "A" line tunic, slim-line trousers and imaginatively moulded dupatta that not only covered heads but also turned heads."

And I love this photo of PIA Air Hostess, Selma Sheikh. She's got such a winning smile and can-do attitude that propells her into a future of blue skies. There's something that evokes Socialist Realist painting here.

And though it's hard to see the uniforms here, the poses of these Jamaica Air hostesses are just too much fun. Doesn't this look like a movie still? Or something from the Cremaster Cycle, if Matthew Barney had a sense of humor? And why is there a whole genre of photography devoted to women posing with machines?

And, of course, Pucci's designs for Braniff. Who could resist those wide-legged trousers? And an umbrella to match (natch!).

I have not seen any version of Coffee, Tea or Me? (book, film or remake), and I abhor the sexualization of all women's work (teacher, librarian, nurse, secretary). Though stewing is a tough job, and air travel in general has lost its glamor, a female flight attendant is still inappropriately sexualized by male passengers in a way that other professions have managed to leave behind. And the sexist practice of hiring only conventionally attractive women has remained the norm for many airlines.

I have the top half of a Singapore Airlines uniform. My mother found it in a thrift shop. I had no idea of its origins, thinking of it simply as an orange and blue batik top. I only got about a block from my house when I was accosted by a eye-numbingly beautiful woman who asked me: "Which run do you have?"

It turns out that she was a flight attendant for Singapore Air, and politely set me straight as to what I was wearing and went on her wing├ęd way. All that day men approached me, on the subway, in elevators, to tell me that they loved Singapore Air. That they loved the airline's Singapore Girls. That they loved a particular Singapore Air stewardess and could I help him get in touch with her? And finally they declared that they loved me and wanted to know how long I'd be in town. Women asked me for diet cokes and extra blankets. The ladies were joking, of course, but the men, not so much.

Of course I was flattered that anyone would think I was a Singapore Girl. I mean, they are all stunning. I also appreciated everyone's broadmindedness since I look Jewish from 5 blocks away. But at the same time it is creepy how women's work, especially when it involves helping others, is sexualized, romanticized and not well paid enough.

There was recent talk of revamping Singapore Air's admittedly sexist and racist campaign. There was even talk of changing the uniform, though flight attendants apparently rejected the proposed redesign of a banal business suit. As an ex-air hostess, who asked to be identified only as "Nancy", told reporters: "When I put on the uniform, I represented Singapore, not just the airline. It made me so proud and we would get a lot of positive feedback." Doesn't she sound like a soldier in the kitsch army of nationalism? Aren't all flight attendants on international carriers a symbol of their nation's fantasies?

And I wonder, why is it that women in national dress are the stuff of erotic fantasy? (And why is it that men abandon traditional dress much faster than women?) Would it be equally racist to dress a Lufthansa stewardess in a dirndl? I'm sure that Iberia's flight attendants would find the addition of a large comb and mantilla a needless emcumbrance. One can navigate both Lufthansa and Iberia's websites without a single photo of their cabin crews. And that's as it should be. I think the Singapore Girl is all grown up. I sure hope the Singapore Air stews have some good collective bargaining and can advocate for whatever uniforms and working conditions suit them best.

Are the Singapore Air stews whose photos are used in promotional materials adequately compensated? Or are they just exploited employees, like those poor skinny girls who look so unhappy on those American Apparel ads?

Lastly, goslings, there is an exhibit of photos of contemporary Flight Attendants by Brian Finke at Clamp Art. That's about all the flying I'll do these days.


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