It's the white gloves that do it. The white gloves and the tight hobble skirts. The tight hobble skirts and the cute pillbox hats. The cute pillbox hats and the undulating runway strut. The runway strut and the white-on-blue, sailor-boy lapels.... Actually, I'm not sure which part of the Pan Am air stewardess's uniform in 1963 could accurately be described as sexy, but something about the bright blue two-piece outfits breathed a sophistication that had never been seen in a woman's uniform before.
In Pan Am, the new prime-time American TV drama series, four azure-clad stewardesses stride confidently through an airport lounge en route to their plane. Their hips sway in motion, their blue handbags are clamped to their perfect hips, their white-gloved hands are angled just so. A little girl watches through a window with an awestruck gaze that guarantees a lifetime of body dysmorphia, while one of the stewardesses looks back as her with a kindly gesture.
The scene is, of course, a pinch from Virgin Atlantic's 2009 TV ad that celebrated their quarter-century in the air. It showed a dozen attractive young women in red two-piece uniforms, accessorised by red scarves and red high heels, striding through Heathrow to the pounding beat of "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Male jaws drop, male lunchers drip ketchup down their shirts, male paparazzi abandon a posing popstrel to photograph the scarlet trolley-dollies instead. The handsome pilot who accompanies the girls raises a saucy eyebrow at an appreciative cougar-lady adjusting her shades by the postcard racks. Two plain (and older) stewardesses from a rival airline look on enviously, like peahens in the rain. And there's a little girl trying to imitate the foxy ladies – one of them waves to her, as though empowering a new generation of girls to spend their best years in service, dishing out sweet-potato salsa wraps and not-quite-coffee to glum businessmen at 30,000 feet.
Look back a few years and you'll find the locus classicus of this air-hostess-harem stuff in a film called Catch Me If You Can, when con-man Frank Abagnale Jnr (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) signs up eight female students to don blue Pan Am uniforms and walk into an airport lounge with him, lending corroborative detail to his fake uniform and pilot's cap. The 21st century has re-discovered something thought axiomatic in the 1960s: air hostesses are glamorous babes, half a step behind fashion supermodels, feisty, super-competent young women, single and available to a guy with the right combination of airmiles and Asprey bijoux.
That's the presumption behind the new TV series, whose pilot (a confusing word in the circumstances) aired in the US on Sunday. In it, we get to know four girls who long to see the world and escape from the everyday pressure (in 1963) to find a husband, settle down and have babies. There's Laura (Margot Robbie), who runs away from her fiancé on her wedding day ("I want to see the world!"), Kate (Kelli Garner), her supportive sister, who has been signed up to spy for the CIA, Maggie (Christina Ricci), a rebellious city girl with enormous brown eyes, and Colette (Karine Vanasse), a romantically inclined Parisienne.
The first episode set umpteen plotlines running. Colette discovered that the man she's been seeing for six months is on the plane – with his wife and child. Laura is catapulted to air-hostess stardom as her face is splashed across the cover of Life magazine. ("You'll find a husband in less than six months!" gushes a colleague.) Kate gets her first undercover assignment, switching passports in the briefcase of a stolid Russian with a terrible accent. And Maggie is helicoptered from her Greenwich Village beatnik apartment to the airport as an emergency purser. Meanwhile, the young pilot's English stewardess girlfriend has gone awol, despite his having proposed to her at Havana airport on the steps of a plane full of American prisoners released after the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion.
It's a fantastically silly series, glossy and superficial and not a patch on Mad Men, but it rams home the message that, in the early 1960s, women were empowered by being allowed to serve martinis and reassure nervous passengers in huge planes. When we see Kate in a Paris bar, verbally fencing with a wolfish intelligence agent, she's an emblem of Emancipated Modern Girl – and you can hear the pride in her voice when she says: "I'm a Pan Am stewardess." While Mad Men charted a gradual evolution of gender equality, Pan Am starts with the proposition that the job of air hostess represented freedom – even as it showed girls being forced to wear girdles, being weighed before flights and risking being fired for getting pregnant.
Was it really like that? "Life with Pan Am was very glossy in the late Fifties," says Diane Markwell, now 74, who, as 21-year-old Diane Little, was one of the first British girls to squeeze into the blue uniform. "We were the best-dressed, highest paid people in the airline industry. TWA stewardesses were looked down on as a bit raffish, Boac were a bunch of dykes and then there was us. We were called 'hostesses' by the way, not 'stewardesses'."
Markwell was working in the photograph section of the Army and Navy stores in Victoria when, in April 1958, she saw an advertisement for a receptionist at Pan Am's Piccadilly offices. "I applied, but they said, 'you don't want to work here – you should be at Heathrow or flying'."
She was put through a rigorous grooming process. "You had to wear your hair off your collar, unlike the girls in the TV show, either short or twisted up at the back in a French pleat," she says. "No jewellery, except for a small pair of stud earrings. White gloves always. And high heels."
Was she taught poise and deportment as well? "I think they took that as read," Markwell says drily. "Generally, girls who applied for those jobs were middle-class and well-spoken, if nothing else."
She worked mostly as ground crew: "what the Americans called 'traffic'. We'd take the passengers up to the aircraft and get them seated. We were the smiling face of the airline – I was photographed, with my colleague Brenda Scofield, purporting to put up Christmas decorations in a Stratocruiser. They used to send us on familiarisation trips, so we'd know what it was like working with passengers on board. We'd have to cook on the aircraft – none of this microwave stuff. We were trained for evacuation procedures. We had to crawl about in a smoke-filled room to simulate a fire on board – while still wearing high heels. And we were sent to a municipal swimming bath to swim a length with our clothes on, just to prove we could do it in the Atlantic."
She didn't remember being squeezed into a girdle in 1958 (but then, she weighed less than 8st) though she remembers being weighed before being allowed on the plane. "Weight and balance were absolutely crucial. If the flight wasn't full, you'd have to disperse passengers very carefully through the aircraft, to get the balance correct."
Pan Am's first transatlantic commercial flight was on 26 October 1958: the plane was a Boeing 707 jet called Clipper America. And with it, the era of the jet-set was born: a brave new world of sophistication, power haircuts, Playboy Club membership, dry martinis, suburban adultery, golfing trousers and hotel-bar seductions, all accompanied by the manly crooning of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr. No sooner had Pan Am invented the future then the entertainment media began to explore its erotic possibilities.
A Swiss-Frenchman called Marc Camoletti wrote a play called Boeing-Boeing that premiered at London's Apollo Theatre in 1962. In it, a suave Parisian architect juggles three fiancées – all air stewardesses – by using airline timetables to determine which girl will be arriving in, or departing from, France on which day. It was an instant smash hit and ran for seven years; it was filmed in 1965 with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis as the architect and his best friend. The play was revived in 2007 to great success.
Meanwhile, a British civil servant called Bernard Glemser published Girl on a Wing in 1960, an early chick-lit novel about the lives of three air hostesses; it was filmed in 1963 as Come Fly With Me and underlined the now-ubiquitous conviction that the life of the airborne geisha was one of constant adventure, glamour and romance.
Shrewdly spotting a trend, in 1967 Donald Bain, a PR consultant to American Airlines, published Coffee, Tea or Me? – The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses, supposedly told by "Trudy Baker" and "Rachel Jones". It was full of hard drinking, sexual misbehaviour and "swinging" attitudes (it's still published by Penguin Books, as "adult fiction") and showed how the brand was heading through turbulence into a tailspin. The nadir was the unspeakably tacky The Stewardesses in 3-D, a 1969 softcore flick shot for $100,000 (£64,000) that grossed $27m worldwide.
In barely a decade, the image of the soignee hostess inviting well-heeled strangers into her cabin for a few hours of pampered airborne luxury had suffered a few dents. In the 1970s, National Airlines ran adverts that basically offered up its indefatigably smiling girls like transports of delight, to be ridden by the lucky punter: "I'm Cindy – fly me to Baltimore"; "I'm Sandy – fly me to Washington". The British band 10cc picked up on the erotic promise of the line in their 1976 hit song, "I'm Mandy – Fly Me."
Had Markwell ever been harassed by lecherous/drunk/impertinent passengers? "Oh no," she says. "But you must remember, in the 1950s, people who flew were generally well-educated and well-off and they wouldn't misbehave. It wasn't like today. People dressed up to fly: gentlemen in suits and ladies in full fig." Had she been the object of entirely proper overtures, then? "There was one man," she says, "a Canadian millionaire, the president of a gas company. We'd been chatting away for a while at Heathrow – and nothing untoward happened whatsoever – but after he'd left on his plane, I discovered he'd put £100 in my handbag. It was a huge amount in 1958 – it paid my rent for a month."
The Canadian magnate who was so grateful for her girlish reassurance was, she recalled, a shareholder in the Skyways Hotel at Heathrow. "I got a few hot dinners out of that place," she says. How? "The management used to ring up and invite some of us, in our uniforms, to come over and just... stand around. Oh, and to use the swimming pool of course, if we brought a bathing costume."
How piquant to think of a innocent time when air hostesses, in their azure two-pieces, tight skirts and pillbox hats, could be called in like human decor, to hang out, be gazed at and admired – not as rideable sexpots, but as the epitome of female grace.
Pan Am will be screened on BBC2 from November.Reuse content