Airline pilot and flight attendant uniforms: The meaning behind the outfits

What does an airline expect of its pilots? Competence, confidence, professionalism, calm, leadership – and these are also the characteristics that an airline wants to project in the uniform it chooses for its pilots. The clean-cut, conservative look, with a white shirt, tie and cap and a buttoned blazer suggests someone who knows what they're about.

The modern commercial airline pilot's uniform has a distinct nautical cut to it, as opposed to one derived from other branches of the military, but it wasn't always so. In the earliest days of passenger air travel, what commercial pilots wore was the same outfit of flying boots, leather bomber jackets, silk scarves and gloves as worn by the flying aces of World War I, required to handle the tough conditions pilots faced in unheated cockpits. Then in the 1930s Pan Am began operating Sikorsky flying boats and the airline adopted the smart, tailored uniform of naval officers.

Pan Am set the template for a successful airline operation and in this as in many other respects, other airlines simply copied what Pan Am was doing. Although Pan Am's double-breasted jacket with brass buttons is no longer as common as it once was, tailored navy or black uniforms are still the order of the day.

Just as with naval officers, the stripes on a pilot's uniform denote the rank of the wearer. There are a few slight variations from one airline to another, but a captain gets four stripes on their sleeves and epaulettes. Three stripes denote a first officer and two for a second officer. One stripe identifies a trainee pilot. Gold is the most common colour for stripes, but silver and some other colours are also used.

Pilots will also usually wear a winged badge, wings with a star in a semi-circle of laurel leaves for a pilot, wings with a star for a first officer and wings alone for those with two or one uniform stripes.

Pilots' uniforms change with fashion, and the changes are not always appreciated in the cockpit. When Qantas unveiled a new uniform for its pilots back in 2016, it issued a 23-page guidebook stipulating how its pilots should present themselves while in uniform. The list included never wearing a backpack, never drinking alcohol or chewing gum and no smoking in public view. Earrings for female pilots only, and plain round pearl, silver, gold or diamond studs. Beards are strictly forbidden, as are the more flamboyant styles of moustaches. Blazers should be buttoned up and only abandoned when the temperature rises above 27C. The new uniform also reverted to the white cap not seen on the heads of Qantas pilots since four decades earlier, another reference to the flying boat era.

Hats for pilots are becoming less common, although most airlines require them as a way of identifying who's in command. Hats are optional for American Airlines and United Airlines pilots, but Delta still tags their pilots with an old-school look, with double-breasted, brass buttoned blazers, and hats a must-wear item. Although Delta will roll out a new uniform for some 60,000 uniformed employees in May 2018, with a casual look crafted by popular lifestyle brand Lands End, the airline's pilots' uniforms are unchanged.

One uniform that breaks practically every rule in the book was that worn by Virgin America pilots (which recently became part of Alaska Airlines). Designed by Banana Republic, the uniform consists of a grey shirt, no tie, no hat and no blazer. The only rank identifier is the gold stripes on the epaulettes.

As opposed to the sober, conservative uniforms it requires of its flight crew, airlines are more inclined to show off their airline's personality and sense of style in the uniforms they choose for their cabin crew, often using high end European-based design houses.

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China's Hainan Airlines chose Paris-based Lawrence Xu to design a sleek, svelte style for its cabin crew with overcoats in dove grey for the gents, cheongsams for the women and mandarin collars. Virgin Atlantic used Vivienne Westwood to come up with a tailored look with accents in the airline's signature red while Ettore Bilotta has done a showstopper for Etihad Airways with hourglass shapes for female cabin crew in chocolate brown with royal purple touches, and a classic trench coat for both sexes.

The national traditions of the airline's base also play a role. Thus the draped scarf worn by Emirates' female cabin crew, the pink and purple silks with sashes worn by Thai Airways crew and the bula wear prints seen aboard Fiji Airways.

The sarong kebaya has been such a trademark for the predominantly female cabin crew of Singapore Airlines that it hasn't changed for decades. This is also one uniform that clearly signifies rank. Blue is the most common, worn by the airlines' flight stewardesses. Next up the ladder is green, for leading stewardesses. Red is a chief stewardess and burgundy is for an in-flight supervisor.

Most airlines apply strict protocols to what their cabin crew may or may not wear while on duty, and Singapore Airlines sets the bar high. No highlights or colouring in the hair, short hair for males, eye shadow in either blue or brown only and no dangly earrings. Lipstick colours must come from a narrow palette of reds and watches must be small and simple.

Do uniforms matter? Just ask Frank Abagnale, celebrated American confidence trickster, forger and imposter. As a teenager, Abagnale's father told him "The world believes your clothes," and young Frank took the advice to heart. He swindled Pan Am into giving him a pilot's uniform and spent years conning his way into cockpits, flying more than a million miles on over 250 flights, staying free at hotels and dining on Pan Am's tab, with absolutely no pilot's qualifications.

See also: The truth about being a flight attendant

See also: 'Landing lips' - what pilot announcements really mean

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