Flight attendant uniforms: Why do airlines still make female flight attendants wear skirts?

Airlines, these days, release new uniforms to much pomp and ceremony. In a bid to outshine each other, fashion designers are called in to create new looks, with Vivienne Westwood behind Virgin's striking new designs – which for women combine "hot red" skirts with frill-front blouses and oversized collars.

One of the more recent was unveiled by French airline La Compagnie, which was one of the first to offer staff the option of culottes – the loose-fitting shorts that in 2014 made a fashion comeback.

Handy, you might think, for those who can't decide between wearing skirts and trousers. But actually, for cabin crew, that choice rarely exists.

In recent years there appears to have been a move away from giving female staff the option to wear trousers.

British Airways staff, for example, are no longer able to wear trousers unless part of the long-haul only team, even though the airline introduced trousers for women in 2004.

A recent report in the Daily Mail claimed that some of BA's staff have complained about this, with a union representing stewards poised to take action, but the airline told us it had not received any complaints.

Etihad's uniform too, used to give staff the option of both trousers and skirts, but its new range also allows skirts only, a result, the airline said, of much consultation with crew.

"Don't you think it's a little sexist?" said Heather Poole, an American air stewardess and the author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers.

Despite wearing a skirt while working herself, she said at times they can be impractical. "Flight attendants are there for safety," she said. "Pantyhose are highly flammable. If I'm wearing a skirt, I'm also wearing hose - as I fight a fire."

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Ms Poole said she chooses to wear a skirt however for aesthetic reasons.

"I almost always wear the skirt, but that's because I don't look good in our pants [trousers]. They're not flattering. But when I'm standing outside the Denver airport waiting for the hotel van to take us to the hotel and it's seven degrees outside, I usually wish I had my pants on. Or when there's a blizzard in New York and I have to work, well, I think I'll wear the pants, regardless of those unflattering pleats."

Lee Cobaj, a travel writer who flew with Thomas Cook as a stewardess for 18 years, was surprised to hear that airlines were backing away from women in trousers but said that she struggled to remember seeing any female crew members wearing them.

"The uniform is a big part of projecting an airline's image," she explained. "The grooming standards that go along with that are extremely stringent too, a certain size of earring, say, and permitted ways to colour and wear your hair. High heels still have to be worn outside of the aircraft and Virgin even have specific lipsticks – I can't think of any other industries that would get away with it."

Sky-high standards

BA expects cabin crew to wear lipstick and blusher "as a minimum".

The sarong part of Asian uniforms, including the "Singapore Girl" uniform, worn by Singapore Airlines cabin crew, has been criticised for being impractical.

Last year, Japan's Skymark Airlines dressed staff in skimpy miniskirts which some said left them open to harrassment.

Virgin Atlantic's high heels gave staff blisters, according to some reports, and its new collars scratched necks.

British Airways' website makes it clear to prospective cabin crew that tattoos are only allowed if they can be covered up, something which is easier for men, being required to show less flesh. "Gentlemen may have tattoos on their legs as trousers can conceal them," it states.

Women, however, are not allowed tattoos even on their feet, as all female shoes "must be of the classic court style, which leaves the top and side of the foot exposed. The maximum permitted hosiery density is 15 denier and does not cover up tattoos."

The airlines contacted for this story had differing policies regarding trousers for women.

Most however, suggested that their strict uniform standards were an accepted part of the job, with the overwhelming majority of female cabin crew wanting to wear skirts. Even airlines that do allow trousers as an option said that few cabin crew, if any, take it up.

BA said the management team for its long and short-haul cabin crew had not received a request from female crew members to wear trousers in four years. "Our cabin crew are proud to wear one of the industry's most iconic uniforms," it said.

Virgin Atlantic, however, does give females a trouser option – Vivienne Westwood herself sported a riotous pair at the Virgin uniform's launch party.

"Virgin Atlantic has an iconic look for its crew of which we are extremely proud," a spokesman said, "and the standard uniform includes a skirt. However the comfort of our people is very important to us and therefore trousers can be provided with requests reviewed on a case by case basis."

Emirates refused to comment on the issue, while Etihad Airways said its new, skirt-only female uniforms had been "enthusiastically well received by our crew and guests since we launched them in December."

The female trouser option was dropped after criteria including safety, durability, functionality, and style for a workforce of more than 140 nationalities, were considered.

Etihad's crew were "deeply involved" in the creation of Ettore Bilotta's feminine designs, a spokesman said, and, while previously an option on a few specific flight sectors, "female cabin crew indicated a clear preference against trousers in the new design process".

Trousers are not an issue at EasyJet however. "EasyJet provides all of its female cabin crew with the option of wearing either a dress, skirt or trousers when on duty," a spokesman said. "The safety and wellbeing of our passengers and crew is easyJet's highest priority and we comply with all relevant regulations."

In contrast, Ryanair, perhaps unsurprisingly for an airline that published an annual calendar of staff in bikinis until just last year, makes its female crew wear skirts.

A Ryanair spokesman said its uniform options are under review, along with all other aspects of the budget airline's operation.

One reason for cabin crew wanting to look glamorous is the feeling that it is important for airline staff stand out, giving them more authority in the eyes of passengers.

Lufthansa revived a tradition of staff wearing Bavarian uniform in 2005.

"It is important to convey a somewhat glamorous image – travel should be alluring - but are these airlines trying to say women can't look presentable – even fabulous - in trousers?" said Lee Cobaj.

"A uniform should be there to project authority and professionalism, so that passengers feel that they can rely on you in emergency, but not to attract sexual attention.

"There are a lot of crew who like wearing skirts and feeling feminine – and that should be fine too. But which attire one chooses to wear to work should most definitely be a choice for adults in 2015."

One which the airline industry, compared to other major industries, seems slow to recognise.

In Australia, cabin crew uniforms are required under law to be designed to meet industry safety standards, such as fire safety. However there is no rule limiting airlines from prescribing female flight attendants to only wear skirts and dresses, said Flight Attendants' Association of Australia (FAAA) national industrial officer for the international division, Steven Reed.

"The aesthetic and fashion value of uniforms, in addition to safety, is given different weight by individual airlines. Shapes and style that are flattering on the figure as well as colour are usually chosen to fit the airline branding."

While no airline in Australia has yet to set a "no pants" rule for its female flight crew, Mr Reed said this doesn't mean they can't, adding that if that ever happens; the FAAA will oppose such policies.

"The FAAA is in support of pants being included in individual airline's flight crew uniform policy from a safety perspective," said Mr Reed.

"Flight attendants need to conduct fire fighting and range of flight safety tasks, so uniforms need to have an element of practicality in their design to allow for a range of movements.

"Pants in these circumstances may be the choice for female cabin crew. For example, during an emergency evacuation requiring an inflated slide, wearing a skirt or dress with panty hose may prove to be more of a harzard if the panty hose rips or causes burn rashes when sliding down."

The Telegraph, London with Annie Dang

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