Time was when the air hostess was the height of elegance. In the Fifties, the job was on a par with modelling, with all the glamour of good grooming, a smart uniform and the jet-set (well, propeller-set) lifestyle.

''People were frightfully impressed when you said what you did,' says Shirley Lingard, who flew with four different airlines in the Fifties, including British European Airways (BEA).

The little zip-up flight bags given out to passengers travelling first-class were a style icon for passengers and crew alike. 'We were given them for hand luggage, and the general public could buy them; they became a status symbol, showing you had travelled on aeroplanes,' says Ms Lingard.

'Look how BOAC takes good care of you,' boasted a 1954 advertisement for British Overseas Airways Corporation, forerunner (with BEA) of British Airways. Then, stewards and hostesses were always 'tempered with that hard- to-define quality of friendly ease which is traditionally British', said the advertisement; they wore a simple, military-style wardrobe. A blue tunic was topped with a flattened army-style forage cap, worn at a jaunty angle.

Today, young men and women do not need to become British Airways trolley dollies to see the world; the air hostess is just part of a service industry; and the uniforms are not what they used to be.

According to the style commentator Peter York, air hostess uniforms are 'terribly interesting. The blouse component has to be polyester to prevent creasing. Prints have to be exuberant, and skirts are never too loose and never too tight. It is not part of corporate policies to project the idea of a five-mile-high club, but it is a fine line.'

When Paul Costelloe redesigned the uniform for BA last year, there were tailored navy blue suits with gilt buttons and a skirt (landing precisely below the knee) in non-crease polyester, topped with neat little flying saucer hats, sensibly low court shoes and leather handbags. Shirley Lingard is unimpressed: 'I don't think much of the apron/overalls they wear, although I suppose they are practical in the galley.'

But last week, for an inspired moment, air hostesses were glamorous again - thanks to Red Or Dead, the young, iconoclastic street fashion label, and their autumn/winter range. 'Announcing the arrival of flight ROD A/W '94. Would all passengers kindly remain seated . . .' Before we could say Leslie Nielsen, it was cabin doors to manual and air hostesses were parading their new uniforms on the runway. What fun it would be if BA cabin crews (or the already tartan-clad crews of Caledonian Airways) really dressed in tiny tartan kilts, matching jackets with shag pile collars, thigh-length kinky boots, and hats with more than a hint of Thunderbirds.

And Red or Dead's air hostess show at London Fashion Week was not just clothes for the boys: there were more practical tartan flight jackets and trousers cropped to the calf, worn with sensible brothel creepers and accessorised with shiny gold flight bags.

Kate Cullinan, who designed the range, was attracted to the hostess look because, she says, they are 'very cool, with never a hair out of place, but also quite kitsch. They always manage to carry a vanity case and look pressed and ironed - because they are dressed in polyester.'

She confesses that she wanted to be an air hostess when she was a little girl, drawn to the make- up, nail varnish and all those girly things. 'It was so glamorous to fly then because you had to be rich and famous.'

Will Caledonian Airways be requiring the services of Red Or Dead for an update on their uniform? Not likely, according to Jill Dunton, line standards co-ordinator for the airline. 'We look very distinctive. When we walk into terminals in America, people stop and stare. I am proud to wear the uniform as it is. I don't think you could change it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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