Cut to 2022. India’s newest airline Akasa Air recently made headlines for its durable and functional crew uniforms designed by Rajesh Pratap Singh. The athleisure-inspired line has won acclaim for its recycled polyester fabric, cushioned rubber sneakers, bandhgala-style jackets and custom pants. The uniform shows how airline uniforms have changed over the decades and prioritize comfort as much as beauty.
“Previously, airline flight attendant dress codes had traditional clubbed silhouettes with classic style centered fabric, tailored blazers, pencil skirts and an overall well-dressed look, with some like Air India promoting the traditional culture of their home country,” says designer Ritu Beri, who has designed uniforms for Air India and Air Sahara. However, today’s fabrics and silhouettes are a balance between comfort and modernism. “The wearer needs to be constantly moving, bending, stretching and keeping up with other physical activities. Therefore, the fabrics used should be made of durable and slightly stretchy materials,” adds Beri.
In 1946, when Tata Air Lines became Air India, air hostesses sported a western look with skirts, jackets and angled caps. Chikliwala recalls that most air hostesses at that time were Anglo-Indian or Parsi. Air India-branded sarees were not adopted until the 1960s when Western uniforms were phased out. “It was also when Air India started advertising India as a tourist destination with great posters that often featured air hostesses,” says Gail Chukerbuty , who worked with the airlines from 1975 to 2009. “The sarees were part of his brand image.” These flight attendants were often seen as the epitome of glamour, dressed in heavy Kanjivaram silk sarees made in government factories.
Gradually, the Air India draped style became famous – in which you had to fold your pallu into pleats, keep it neatly over the shoulder and pin them meticulously in place so that your hands were free. “JRD Tata realized that if he wanted to create a Maharaja brand with the oriental luxury and exoticism of India, he had to show it to his flight attendants as well,” says trainer Suneeta Kanga Sodhi. in business, who worked with Air India from 1986 to 1992. “For me, a saree is still relevant to the India brand internationally.”
When Jumbo Jets were introduced in the 1970s, they had a Maharaja lounge for first-class customers where flight attendants had to dress in a ghagra-choli with silver jewelry such as matha tikka for the forehead and juttis. In the 1970s, senior flight attendants also had the option of wearing churidars paired with short kurtas, although an exception was sometimes made for juniors. “We were taught to drape sarees during our three-month training, but since mine were messy, I was allowed to wear churidar-kurta,” Chukerbuti recalls. “I was happy because it was much easier to access.”
In 1992, salwar-kameezes designed by Delhi-based Salon de Ravissant were introduced in shades of red and blue. “A lot of bandmates switched to these because they were more comfortable than sarees,” Sodhi recalled. However, Sodhi remained true to her saris, even winning the Miss World Airline pageant in 1989 while wearing one. “It was so distinctly Indian that when you walked into the airport everyone turned and looked at us,” she says. There were also special VVIP uniforms for the Prime Minister’s and President’s flights, where crew members could only wear heavy silk saris.
Travel writer Gustasp Irani points out that “while American and European airlines tend to have standard Western clothing, the (female) cabin crew uniforms of Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern airlines tend to reflect the culture of their country”. “Air India’s sarees and salwar kameez conveyed the brand image of the airline, which is both very Indian and chic and modern,” he says.
While the saree was a mainstay, some found it unwieldy during physically demanding work. “It’s elegant, but sometimes it can get in the way when you’re dragging your suitcase to the airport,” explains Farzana Makhija, a former Air India flight attendant. “On long-haul flights, changing into a saree in tiny airplane toilets and then sleeping in small bunks was tedious, so we preferred trousers with tunics.” Indian Airlines stewardesses could only wear sarees until its merger with Air India in 2007, after which the Air India dress code was adopted.
Fashion journalist and author Sujata Assomull says changes in uniforms over the decades reflect changes in our approach to travel. “In the 1950s and 1960s, traveling was a real privilege and people dressed for a flight because it was a special experience, not as ordinary as today,” she says. “The uniforms of the time reflected all that aura around travel.”
In recent years, many fashion designers have been commissioned to make uniforms. When Ritu Beri designed Air India’s uniforms in 2007, the focus was on maintaining its Indian identity but with a modern look. Tunics, jackets, coats, aprons, sarees and scarves combined bright Indian colors with patterns inspired by the Konark Sun Temple and black and white borders. “The main idea was to create a distinctive royal image for the national carrier,” says Beri. “The elements were very Indian and intricate.” At the same time, French fashion guru Pierre Cardin was brought in to give the male cabin crew a new look.
Even budget carriers like Indigo and SpiceJet have brought in designers like Rajesh Pratap Singh and Nimish Shah respectively. Others like Jet Airways asked Ravi Bajaj, Sabyasachi and later Italian fashion designers Roberto Capucci and Enrico Minio to redesign their outfits and the defunct Kingfisher Airlines commissioned Manoviraj Khosla to add a touch of glamor with red mini-skirts, shoes and white shirts.
The rise of private airlines has also led to a move away from traditional and formal ethnic clothing towards a more global, casual and contemporary style. In 2014, Vistara had Indian designer duo Abraham & Thakore who designed aubergine and gold trouser suits for the female cabin crew and blue trousers, shirts and lavender jackets for the male crew. “These uniforms allow us to be nimble, yet comfortable in carrying out our duties on board,” said Neha Sharma of Vistara cabin crew.
Significantly, around 1999, several Air India flight attendants requested and were granted the opportunity to design their own garments. The red and blue sarees and salwar-kameez were produced by Karnataka Silk Industries with eco-friendly dyes and finally introduced on Independence Day 2000 across the network. In 2015, Air India started offering its cabin crew the choice to wear trousers for the first time. “The requirements and function of air transport have changed drastically over the years, and so have uniforms,” says Rajesh Pratap Singh. “The most important element in a uniform is functionality, the aesthetic component comes later.”
In recent years, a number of airlines have opted to prioritize comfort and functionality over garments that are just flashy. Akasa Air’s sneaker-trouser combination is a good example. Deepika Mehra from Vanilla Moon, who designed the sneakers, says they were informed to design shoes that are gender neutral, comfortable and durable. “Sneakers are the biggest fashion trend these days, so it was a logical choice,” she says. “We used recycled rubber soles, breathable textile linings and responsibly sourced leather.” Belson Coutinho, co-founder and director of marketing and experience, adds that the uniforms “combine style, comfort and durability while taking into account the mobile lifestyle of crew members and the long hours they spend on their feet. “.
Assomull adds that Akasa’s bandhgala-inspired tunic looks youthful, fun and modern all at the same time. “I love the idea of flight attendants wearing sneakers because that’s what we wear on the flight,” she says. “Why should they hang out in heels – it’s dangerous and they work?”
While the right to wear comfortable pants and shoes has been an important step towards gender parity, some entrenched gender stereotypes about the profession remain. “There’s still the belief here that flight attendants should be young and pretty,” Chukerbuti says. “The West had moved away from that to accept that the crew was just there to serve you and save your life in an emergency.” She adds that when designing a uniform, it’s important to take safety into account: “You have to ask yourself how practical it would be if the crew rescued the passengers of an airplane and if they would be able to move freely.”