We were the supermodels of our day: From wild parties to rich suitors – air stewardesses from the Sixties recall their jet-set lives in a new documentary
Ambition for most women in post-war Britain didn’t amount to much more than the hope of becoming a shop assistant or a secretary.
But that all changed in the Sixties with the arrival of jet air travel and a new career tailor-made for young single women – the air hostess.
In the immediate post-war period air travel was anything but glamorous. But pioneering jet-engine technology in the Fifties meant Britain began to lead the world in this new form of travel and, on 2 May 1952, the first commercial jet airline was launched – the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).
From the golden age: BOAC air stewardesses
With pressurised cabins and drastically reduced flight times, air travel suddenly became a joy. And with these new aircraft came a new breed of stewardess – there not just to serve passengers but to entertain them in the manner of a party hostess, as a new documentary on the Yesterday channel reveals.
BOAC came to epitomise glamour and thousands of wannabes applied to ‘Fly head and shoulders above the rest as a BOAC air stewardess’. ‘If your girlfriend was an air hostess it was like having a supermodel on your arm,’ says former stewardess Celia Day, 76, from Surrey.
Only one in 1,000 were selected for its eight-week training programme. ‘You had to be British, single and aged between 21 and 26,’ recalls former BOAC stewardess Barbara Anderson, 76, of Hampshire, who began her career in 1957.
Katie Howe with the pink
Jaguar given to her by a sheikh
‘The interviewer said, “You will end up on a wonderful Caribbean island with gorgeous men who will probably want to go to bed with you. What will you do” I was so shocked I just said, “Just the same as I do at home.”’
The girls had to make sure they were easy on the eye too. Diane Royce, 69, from Ascot, who made her first BOAC flight in 1966, explains, ‘You had to have a good figure with a minimum height and weight, and we had Elizabeth Arden make-up lessons and deportment tuition.’
After the second week, the stewardesses were measured for their uniforms. ‘I loved the pencil-slim skirt. It was very Jackie O and had a great impact as men would offer us a seat on the train. We felt very glamorous.’
In the mid-Sixties, advertising chiefs realised just how much sex sells and in 1967, BOAC introduced the fireproof paper dress, which could be trimmed as short as the stewardess cared to wear it.
Katie Howe as she is today
Former stewardess Katie Howe, 66, of Wiltshire says, ‘The baggage loaders would cut our dresses, so some girls had eight inches taken off. But because they were A-line, when we put something on the rack above the seats the dress would ride up and everyone could see your knickers. There was plenty of bottom pinching. Today you’d give someone a slap, but then the key was to be firm and polite when telling them to stop it.’
The stewardess’s job was to make sure
their guests had a relaxing time, even if they needed a helping hand.
‘We’d have paper cups of champagne which we sipped to make us more
bubbly with our customers,’ recalls Katie. And the party spirit didn’t
‘Passengers would try it on and I
dated a few, but there were more dalliances between the crew.’ Celia Day
recalls, ‘We had amazing parties. There would be masses of alcohol
taken off the plane. If the captain said, “The party’s in my room” and
you were on a long-haul trip, you knew it was going to be a good one.’
Diane adds, ‘If you were on a tropical island for a few days’ rest,
there were a lot of temptations. There was lots of promiscuity and
Stewardesses also got the opportunity
to rub shoulders with the rich. ‘I began dating a sheikh in Bahrain,’
recalls Katie. ‘He asked me what my dream car was and I jokingly said,
“A shocking pink Jaguar E-type!” He asked me to come to a Jaguar garage
and, to my amazement, he presented me with a pink Jaguar E-type. I was
Barbara wasn’t so
lucky. ‘We flew Vivien Leigh back from New York, just after she’d split
from Laurence Olivier. She was crying and when she finally went to
sleep, I tried on her mink coat. Then Vivien popped her head round the
curtain for a cup of tea. I nearly died but she said, “Don’t worry dear,
it looks lovely on you. Why don’t you wear it for the rest of the
flight” Sadly I didn’t get to keep it.’
high life ended abruptly when the women reached 35 or got married. ‘I
gave up when I married and there’s been no career as alluring since,’
says Diane. ‘I tried on my old uniform recently and it was as if 40
years had fallen away – I felt the excitement and glamour return.’
I Was A Jet Set Stewardess is on Yesterday on 21 March at 9pm