Flights of fancy: A new TV series celebrates the swinging Sixties era of Pan Am stewardesses

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The Independent Online

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 hadn't 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 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. 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.

It's fantastically silly, 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. 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 Army and Navy stores 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."

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, Playboy Club membership, dry martinis, suburban adultery 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. 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.

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 Stewardesses in 3-D, a 1969 softcore flick shot for $100,000 (£64,000) that grossed $27m.

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 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".

Had Markwell ever been harassed? "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." 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, 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 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 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.

PanAm will be screened on BBC2 from November