As you sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight, you might not realize that flight attendants have a pretty physically demanding job. They’re expected to be on their feet for most of the trip, helping passengers with their seats, bags, meals, and carryons. They get down on their hands and knees to access hard-to-reach drawers, they lift bags of ice and containers of food and drinks, and lug bulky items throughout the cabin. Additionally, they’ve even been forced to defend themselves from aggressive passengers.
So what crew members wear when working on board matters. Flight attendants want to look good on the job—but most importantly, they want to be comfortable. And even though airlines have come a long way since the revealing hot pants and go-go dresses flight attendants sported back in the 1970s, most flight attendants agree that today’s uniforms still aren’t where they need to be. Here's why. (Note: All of the flight attendants in this story spoke to us under the condition of anonymity.)
Flight attendant uniforms aren’t the most practical
Flight attendant uniforms need to be fire retardant, which limits fabric options—but the crew members we spoke to agreed that almost all the fabric is stiff, uncomfortable, and traps heat. Not exactly what you want when you’re on your feet and lifting, bending, or reaching—sometimes in bumpy turbulence.
“It's restrictive on full-figured employees. That's my plight," says a flight attendant working for a major U.S. airline of her uniform's material. "I just have to watch how I bend over or squat down in the dress and skirt,” She also added that the style of the uniform brings too much attention to her hips and butt.
Some uniforms are also known to break and bust: Another flight attendant says she’s ripped three dresses doing basic in-flight tasks. The uniforms have no give, she says, so she’s gotten used to taking her dresses apart and sewing them back together.
Many flight attendants say that one of the major problems with their uniforms is that they don't suit a variety of body shapes and sizes. “We have flights attendants from 18 to 70 years of age and a great variety of body types—we need more than a three-piece suit with a white shirt or a skirt or dress option to wear,” says a Toronto-based flight attendant in the airline industry for nearly 30 years. Throughout her career, this flight attendant says she has gone through a few different uniforms—a double-breasted suit with a bow scarf, a pencil skirt with a tapestry vest, another three-piece suit with a blazer and a belt—all of which were uncomfortable to work in.
Today, everyone on her airline—regardless of their age, shape, size, gender—has to wear the same three piece suit. Men get a tie, and women now have the option of wearing a scarf or a dress. Moving in this direction certainly was necessary, she says, reflecting back on when female flight attendants of all races were regulated down to their bras and underwear, all of which had to be the same nude color. But sometimes she says she feels like the airlines have overcorrected.
Another issue? The material of most uniforms is notoriously sweltering. The Toronto flight attendant says her current uniform is made out of a light-weight wool that has a polyester lining. “It does not stay cool whatsoever," she says.
Airlines nitpick about the smallest details
You might not suspect that the airlines have rules about the flight attendants’ lips, hair, legs, or feet, but there are pretty stringent rules in place regarding what lipstick shade they can wear, how they can style their hair, what type of earrings they can wear (studs only!), and what types of shoes are allowed. And nylons are a must: If they rip, you better have a replacement pair.
One flight attendant says she understands the need to look professional and polished; their number one job is safety, and a clean-and-tidy look can help keep passengers calm. “What I don’t understand is the nitpickiness of making certain shades of lipstick and nail polish required, having pictographs of hair styles and beard and mustache styles. Not everyone looks good in pale pink lipstick,” she says.
Female flight attendants are also expected to wear heels in the airport, and they can choose to switch into flats, called “cabin shoes,” once boarded. But that means they’re hauling a few different pairs of shoes around during their travels. “Did you know, should we have an emergency evacuation, one of the first things we’re supposed to do is take off our nylons and heels? Why not just get rid of them entirely?” says a Native American flight attendant working for a low-cost U.S. airline.
That particular flight attendant also struggles with the fact that her airline prohibits visible tattoos. “Many piercings and tattoos are culturally significant,” she says. “Should someone with moko (Maori facial tattoos) never be a flight attendant? An Inuit who is reviving traditional tattoos? It’s a bit frustrating, to be honest.”
Additionally she says that while most carriers are LGBTQ+ friendly, the dress code is still very conservative. While pants and shorts are becoming more available to women cabin crew across the industry, if you’re male or perceived as male, more feminine styles are completely off the table.
Most flight attendants agree that the airlines have made strides toward the better—that’s undeniable: Women now have the option of wearing pants and shirts instead of only dresses or skirts, for example. But in the grand scheme of things, there’s still a lot of progress to be made. The uniforms might look good on a hanger, but they are not realistically comfortable or universally flattering. Today’s flight attendants are a diverse group of employees who want options.
“It would be nice to have choices to find our own comfortable and pretty in,” the Toronto attendant says. “You’d be surprised at how often we complain about the uniform while we chat in the galley.”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler