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The Controversial History of Flight Attendants

Thanks to pop culture phenoms like Mad Men, we are well aware of the association between beautiful, polished stewardesses and mid-century air travel. Used together, they showed the world how glamorous and successful Americans were during the Cold War.

But a flight attendant was more than just an advertisement. She was a walking contraction whose career documents the public (or at least advertising's) perception of women during that era. Journalist and USC PhD grad Victoria Vantoch delves into these double standards in her new book, The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon.

"I became interested in gender roles in the 1950s and how, in the U.S., women were expected to become full-time homemakers," Vantoch said at a book launch party in a sprawling mid-century-style mansion that featured people dressed in their Pan Am finery and chef Mark Peel making grilled cheese sandwiches in the kitchen. "And, at the same time, airline stewardesses were huge icons and they were these career women who were out traveling the world."

(By contrast, Vantoch says, the feared and hated Soviet Union showed women in an equal light to men during this time; a flight attendant from Moscow "was a working woman" who didn't have to monitor her looks and makeup routine).

Eventually, Vantoch says, the American promotional strategy that started out to make "airborne June Cleavers" after World War II -- an era so strict that airlines measured these womens' calves, made them wear girdles, offered tips on how to find a husband, but would make them resign if they landed one themselves -- embraced the world of mod skirts and go-go books and "by the end of the '60 they were portrayed as strippers."

Vantoch isn't being facetious. Her book references Mary Wells Lawrence's 1965 "Air Strip" Super Bowl ad for Braniff International that featured an actress seductively removing her Emilio Pucci uniform and ended by saying, "Even an airline hostess should look like a girl."

The book also covers the airlines' strict guidelines for hiring only those who looked like the "All-American Girl" and the inevitable discriminations based on race and weight, as well as the "beauty boot camp with white gloves and lipstick" that you had to go through before your first flight. Yet these were still careers that tons of young women clamored for after college. Because all that headache meant a chance to support yourself financially and to see the world.

Do you think the trade-off of being a sex object or an "airborne June Cleaver" was worth the opportunity to travel the world? Sound off in the comments.


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