In 1958, LIFE magazine photographer, Peter Stackpole, was sent on assignment to the American Airlines Stewardess finishing school in Dallas, Texas, to document the six-week journey to becoming a stewardess, from learning the basic requirements of passenger safety, posture and physical fitness, to make-up training and the off-duty camaraderie, for a hugely sexist article called Glamour Girls of the Air, published on 25 August 1958. He also took photos of the newly-qualified stewardesses on the job in New York and elsewhere.
There’s no doubt the photos capture the glamour and excitement of this new world of air travel, but boy is the article sexist and some of the language cringeworthy!
During the 1950s, becoming an air stewardess was seen as a “glamorous” way for adventurous young women to escape a dreary future as a housewife, so there’s no doubt that it was seen as exciting. It wasn’t an easy job to get. The stewardess field was competitive, with very few openings.”
They all want to be airline stewardesses and here are coping with situations that will face them if they make the grade. The job they want does not pay extraordinarily well, only $255 to $355 a month. The life is irregular and the opportunities for promotion are small. But the chance to fly, to see the world and meet all sorts of interesting people – mostly the kind of men who can afford to travel by plane – gives the job real glamour.”
Looks were valued so highly, interviewers screened out women who didn’t fit the corporate standards of beauty. They also were not allowed to be married, certainly not pregnant, or work as a stewardess past the age of 30.
A girl has to be between 21 and 26 years old, unmarried, reasonably pretty and slim, especially around the hips, which will be at the eye level of passengers (ie male passengers). She should have poise and tact, good disposition and pleasant speaking voice.”
It’s not surprising then, perfecting the style of a stewardess was the first thing on the schedule. This included having their hair cut (by male hairdressers) to conform with the company standard length and style – it was not to sit below the collar.
Girls then took classes in putting on make-up, adopting correct posture like learning to walk with a straight back and sitting like a lady.
Course in slimming is part of curriculum at American Airlines’ luxurious college for stewardesses near Dallas. Here trainees roll away excess hippage.”
Session in the sun beside the pool at American school gives trainees a chance to relax and tan.”
Only after her looks and poise were perfected, did she learn about the actual aircraft, the basics in passenger safety, passenger service equipment and the whole psychology of serving passengers!
At the end of five and a half weeks, the girls put on their uniforms for the first time for a graduation ceremony, where they are awarded their wings. Then – without time out to rest – they flew off to their new careers.
“Cavorting in California between flights, United stewardesses Dorothy Jordan, Jill Weinhart and Barbara Scherer splash in the surf at Hermosa Beach.”
“Meandering in Manhattan, SAS girls Bente Moller, Birgitta Lindman & Berit Poulsen eye a hansom near Central Park.”
Most of the girls were forced to resign after about two years when they wanted to marry – sometimes to pilots or passengers, but mostly men they knew “back home” – after which point the airline was no longer interested in them.