The Workers’ History Museum is dedicated to finding new potential research interests to connect the Ottawa community in their shared labour history. Since the institution of Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA), which took its first flight in 1937, Canadians have been employed by TCA. (TCA adopted its current bilingual name, Air Canada, in 1965.1) A focus on the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation’s (CSTMC) collection of flight attendant uniforms reveals that each artifact tells the story of the changing roles and views towards flight attendants in Canada.
I had the pleasure of visiting the CSTMC’s collection and was given a tour of the Air Canada uniforms by the Museum’s Assistant Curator of Aviation, Molly McCullough. The collection consists of an array of uniforms from different airlines. However, the CSTMC’s most extensive collection consists of Air Canada uniforms.
Since the first TCA flight attendant in 1938, there have been nine different uniforms for women, while men’s uniforms have experienced little change since male flight attendants joined Air Canada in 1945. And until 1978, female flight attendants wore different uniforms that distinguished them from male staff.2 The six uniforms discussed are chosen to reflect different styles in Canadian fashion, which also hint at the gradually changing perception of roles for male and female flight attendants.
The Winter Uniform was worn by Air Canada flight attendants from 1964 to 1969.3 The uniform, designed by Michel Robichaud, was intended to provide stewardesses with style and practicality.
The uniform consisted of a charcoal green suit with an A-line skirt to improve movement and was also treated for static electricity.4 Air Canada described the launch of the new uniform in their October 1964 company newspaper Between Ourselves as “simple elegance, which would not look out of place in a fashionable dining room.” The focus on elegance and style meant that unlike their male counterparts, whose uniforms had only had slight modifications since male pursers joined the cabin crew in 1945 it was more important for female flight attendants to adhere to style trends of the period.
The Flight Service Director’s uniform of 1972 consisted of a blue suit jacket with yellow stripes. The comparison of the Flight Service Director Uniform with the Mini Dress further represents how stewardesses’ uniforms promoted individuality and style while men’s uniforms reflect practicality.
The Mini Dress, worn from 1969 to 1973, came in three colours: red, blue (as shown above) and Sonic White.5 The similarity of the dress to the Star-trek phenomena reflects how both outfits were products of the fashion and popular culture of the 1970s.
The Mix and Match Uniform, worn from 1973-1978 best reflects Air Canada’s attempt to promote women’s individuality. The uniform consisted of over fifty pieces and a total of 300 different style combinations.6
This expressed individuality was in part an attempt to give women the freedom of choosing their own style; it was not as important for men to express this freedom. The main problem with the uniform was that it made it difficult for passengers to distinguish flight attendants. The uniform illustrates that female flight attendants were cultural icons for the airline. However, considering there were few changes to men’s uniforms, they did not serve the same purpose.
Similar uniforms for men and women were instituted in 1978. This was the first time that both men and women had the same clothing but with different cuts.
The In Charge flight attendant uniform consisted of a navy blue blazer, red vest, pants and skirts for women.7 All blazers contained the Air Canada crest.
The uniform demonstrated a change of attitude of the airline to make all cabin crew equally identifiable. Before 1978, the various uniform changes for women reflect Air Canada’s first flight attendant Lucile Garner Grant’s comment that flight attendant uniforms were not navy blue because “that’s what the pilots wore.”8 (TCA had many navy blue uniforms from the 1930s to the 1960s, but Grant’s statement reflects the airline’s decision to choose the first flight attendant uniform, which was beige.9)
Grant’s commentary reveals a hesitation to design unisex uniforms. Her testimony also illustrates future avenues for further work on this project. As each uniform represents a fashion, and the changing perceptions of female flight attendants, it also represents a personal labour history of the person who wore it.
During my visit to the CSTMC storage facility, McCullough mentioned that former flight attendants were often happy to discuss and share their experiences. A potential local oral history project or exhibition could include using photographs of the uniforms to illustrate the memories of men and women in Ottawa who worked for Air Canada over the past seventy-five years. We are eager to collect these stories and artefacts. If you have any interest in the topic or in sharing your own story, please contact the Workers’ History Museum.
Credit: The Winter Uniform is part of the CSTMC/Air Canada Collection, 2003.0598; other pictures are courtesy of CSTMC/Air Canada Collection.
1 Air Canada, 75 Years of Innovation from 2012, 50.
2 Between Ourselves, January 31, 1978, pg. 7
3 Information provided on the tour of the CSTMC collection by Molly McCullough.
4 CSTMC Catalogue Information.
5 Air Canada, 75 Years of Innovation from 2012, 50.
7 Catalogue information.
8 Air Canada, 45.