Book Review: The Flight Attendant’s Shoe

It’s hard to picture a time when people would put on their mink coats and white gloves just to go flying. I don’t know about you, but for me, airplane attire is a ratty hoodie and slouchy sweats. But Prudence Black’s The Flight Attendant’s Shoe takes me back to a time when flying was a spectacular occasion that was nothing short of glamorous. Black chronicles the uniforms worn by flight hostesses of Australia’s international airline, Qantas, from 1948 to 2003.

Uniforms could seem like the antithesis of fashion—wearers are bound by restrictions, stripped of individuality, and awash in homogeny. But after the Second World War, becoming a stewardess was a dream career due to its chic allure, and The Flight Attendant’s Shoe quickly reveals that a relationship between utilitarian uniforms and high fashion does exist. Black contextualizes the subject within crucial events—changes to the flight attendant’s uniform echoed changes to the broader landscape of Australia’s social, industrial, and economic history.

When the Boeing 747, the largest commercial aircraft ever, took its first flight in 1969, it changed not only the world of international travel, but prompted a revamp of the Qantas uniform. Airlines became ever so corporate as more and more passengers were flying. Enter the Redback in 1971, a throwback to earlier military-style uniforms that reflected the businesslike formality of the times. This “dowdy but smart” style was a big shift from the soft aqua and cheeky coral 9 designs of the 1960s. Updates to the uniform even accompanied the rise of feminism when Yves Saint Laurent was welcomed aboard as head designer in 1987, and flight attendants finally had the option to skip the skirts and pick up the pants.

September 11 affected uniforms, too. Airlines in North America and abroad shelled out extra money on new uniforms to “give employees a psychological lift.” Herein lay the heart of Black’s thesis: uniforms, even when badged in corporate identity, have the power to transform an experience and influence emotions.

This gorgeously designed 330-pager is chronologically structured, beginning with a chapter devoted to the book’s namesake, the staple slip-on shoe that has remained the same for over 80 years. This is followed by nine chapters, each dedicated to a new uniform update. In between, readers are blessed with chunks of full-colour pages resembling your mother’s childhood scrapbook, displaying an assortment of vintage ads, fashion illustrations, and photos of beaming cabin crews. Encountering these was naturally my favourite part—it was a surprise kind of like falling upon lost money. My second favourite was Black’s impressive sourcing. She backs up every inch of the book with credible sources and neatly compiles them in an extensive list that includes a bibliography and 439 footnotes. It’s the stuff of fact-checkers’ dreams, and the kind of work that makes me feel confident this arsenal can be trusted.

By the time you arrive at the end of the book, a substantial realization awaits: uniforms lost their glamour when words like “full-body scanners” and “pat downs” entered our vernacular. But fashion evolves with the times. Perhaps one day, glamour will take back its rightful seat in the skies.

The Flight Attendant’s Shoe by Prudence Black, NewSouth Publishing, 2011
photography by Brianne Burnell

If flight wear is to your fancy, be sure to check out Issue 11 where we cover the evolution of stewardess dress.

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