[OT] Stewardesses I Don’t Understand

This is incredibly off-topic — but I bet if I’d waited a few hours, there’d be one or two stewardess-related Thursday comics and I could have tied it all neatly together.

Back in the day, when female flight attendants were considered little more than Runway Models of the Skies, there were a number of age and weight and other requirements for the job. Including the stipulation that they be between 5’2’’ and 5’6”.

And that part puzzles me: can anybody guess why a woman over 5’6” would be unacceptable?

(And remember, a taller woman would still be bound by the weight requirement and the “she has to be a looker” requirement)

My best guess, and I’m pretty sure it’s a terrible guess, is that airlines wanted to get away with buying (and recycling) the least possible number of uniforms.

39 Comments

  1. My guess also is uniforms. But cynically, I wonder if the airlines thought taller women would look less cute and/or less servile.

  2. Did airlines own the uniforms or did stewardesses have to buy them? Either way, limited sizes would streamline matters for whoever manufactured the uniforms to the airlines’ specifications, and probably figure in the terms of the contract.

    There was also the growing obsession with uniform customer experience, from burger chains delivering the exact same food coast to coast to Holiday Inns presenting identical accommodations as a benefit (and in the early days of highway tourism, some predictability actually was a benefit). It would also simply quality control — just make sure everything fits the same playbook — and facilitate economies of scale. Interchangeable employees were part of the equation.

    I would think they had some military-type physical standards for pilots, but less restrictive. Pilots could certainly have longer careers.

    Meanwhile, a portion of a 1950s Mickey Mouse Club. While a boy learned about becoming an airline pilot, guess what the girl learned about:

  3. If we can accept that flight attendants were “considered little more than Runway Models of the Skies” then we can accept that only a slim range of ideal “lookage” is acceptable. It speaks well of you that it doesn’t occur to you that 5’2 to 5’6 would be the only acceptable range to be lookable. Tall women weren’t considered attractive. Kind of dumb but….

    Reminds me of one of my mother’s stories. She was helping a patient walk around her hospital room and was making upbeat small talk. In an attempt to find some common ground and commenting on her pacing she said in attempt to be pleasant “My, you are a tall woman too”. The woman asked “Well, how tall are you?” My mom answered 5′ 10″ and the woman snapped “I’m only 5’8″. How *dare* you call me tall! Why you’re taller then I am!”

  4. I doubt it would have been the uniforms, because the marginal cost of producing additional sizes is low, and it’s unlikely that any one uniform would ever be used by more than one person.
    The answer is probably cabin architecture: a shorter person would have an easier time leaning over to reach someone in a window seat without hitting her head on the luggage racks.
    P.S. Before the Space Shuttle, NASA had a similar height limit (5’11”). This had less to do with the space suits (which were custom-fitted for each astronaut), and more to do with the basic needs of moving around in an extremely small capsule.
    P.P.S. I believe there was at least one astronaut who managed to lose an inch or two in the official records, so that he could squeeze into the program.

  5. I’m not a woman but Woozy’s story kinda struck a chord with me, as I’m 6’01” and have been since I was about 14. I get what Woozy’s mom was trying to do and that’s fine by me but I have lost count of how many times people ranging from teachers and family members to random strangers have made comments like that to me out of the blue. Why do some people feel the need to do this? And what are we tall people supposed to say… “Sorry that my height bothers you — I’ll try to shrink a little” ?? Or: “Thanks for reminding me — I had totally forgotten how tall I am” ?? I mean, it’s usually not acceptable to point out to people how short or fat they are… just sayin’. One time I had a fresh haircut, a colleague looked straight at me and blurted out with some astonishment: “Your hair is really short!” So I just said “thanks” and we had a good laugh. For the record, it was never long to begin with.

  6. I think woozy has it. Women needed to be in a certain height range to be attractive.

    The cost of producing a range of uniform sizes was surely too low to be an important factor.

  7. My mother thought I was something to have in common and as part of the patients recovery was to recognize how to efficiently mobilize and to recognize range being aware of the range for one’s height. What my mother was actually thinking but didn’t say was that in here working where she must adjust her pace with the patient it was nice to have someone of similar range.

    But I find it very odd that you are taking a comment about height as necessarily a criticism.

  8. The Elite modeling agency ONLY accepts women between 5-8 and 5-11. Granted that’s now and the requirements I quoted were from the 50s, but it’s hard to believe perceptions have changed THAT much.I

    There were plenty of tall actresses considered beautiful in the 50s, after all.

  9. “But I find it very odd that you are taking a comment about height as necessarily a criticism.”

    I don’t think we are. We’re just riffing on the reaction of your mother’s patient, who seemed to consider it a criticism.

  10. @ Bill – The narrow height bracket makes more sense for a modeling agency, since the dressmakers are making a limited number of showpieces.

  11. Kilby, my point wasn’t the narrowness of the bracket, but the fact that one of the world’s best-known modeling agencies doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with tall women.

  12. @CIDU Bill: As long as they are not taller than 5’11″… Also, if their minimum height is 5’8″, then it means that none of the Runway Models of the Skies would make it there either.

  13. Pilot ego could be another factor. Back in the 50s and 60s, most commercial pilots got their original training in the military (especially as jets became more prevalent) and the military has height limitations on pilots. That meant a lot of pilots were average to less than average height. Maybe the airlines didn’t want their pilots feeling uncomfortable with stewardesses who were as tall or taller than they were.

  14. @ Bill & lazarusjohn – <Neanderthal mode ON> Perhaps the airlines and the modeling agencies cut a secret deal to reserve each organization a fair allotment of a limited resource? </Neanderthal mode OFF>

  15. Oddly, the Soviet Union’s first group of cosmonauts had to be under 5’7″ initially, according to https://www.britannica.com/topic/astronaut, due to the “small size” of the Vostok spacecraft. It was roomier than the Mercury, and in fact rearranged it became possible to fit two or three people inside for the Voshkhod programme. One difference with Vostok compared with Mercury or Voshkhod is that it had to include an ejector seat, so maybe that’s the reason

    Yuri Gagarin was only 5’2″; apparently he used to have to use a cushion to raise his height when he began flight training on aircraft.

    Connecting space pilot height with the original theme of flight attendants, before he became an astronaut Last Man On The Moon Eugene Cernan married his first wife Barbara, a Continental flight attendant. I read his autobiography some time ago and I think I remember right that the rules then (1961) were that married women could not continue to fly for the airline (or maybe any airline), so they kept her marital status secret for a bit.

  16. Ha, the little girl in braids could’ve been me . . . ’til I had to wear glasses and there went my dream of being a stewardess . . . a/k/a glorified waitress, as my dad kept telling me.

  17. I’m 6 foot 3 and 1/2, and yes, I’ve heard all of the “tall” comments. My least favorite was from a nasty kid back in high school (I wasn’t quite that tall then, but still perhaps 6/2″ — “Wow, I didn’t know they could stack [stuff] that high.” He, of course, did not use “stuff” but rather another word beginning with the same letter.

    I guess I’ll never serve in a submarine, either (mercifully, since among other things I’m a claustrophobe and I can’t swim).

  18. I think uniforms were a factor, but not quite in the way previous guesses have explored the issue. I think it’s a matter of design. It’s difficult to design a uniform that actually looks uniform across all sizes that people come in.

    The “real” reason… the seats that cabin crew ride in when they’re allowed to be seated at all are VERY SMALL. Space inside an aircraft is expensive, and space used by crew is unavailable to be sold at high prices to paying customers.

    Of course, a true answer to “why do they restrict their candidates like that?” is “because they can”. They had enough candidates that arbitrarily discarding a large portion of them for being outside a specified range STILL left them with a large number of candidates to select from. “Stewardess” was a desirable job that paid well; lots and lots of people wanted the job. You still see this today… a job is offered, and hundreds of people apply for it. Somebody has to take the stack of resumes that’s an inch thick and narrow it down to the 3 to 5 people we’d like to actually interview. So, we’ll toss every resume that doesn’t list a degree, even if a degree isn’t really required to do the job (along with a lot of other reasons to reject an applicant that may have little to nothing to do with actually being able to do the job. A typo on a resume of a person applying to be an editor/proofreader? Inexcusable. A typo on a resume that was offered seeking a job as a plumber? Not quite as relevant. But equally deadly to the applicant’s hopes of employment.)

  19. “I think I remember right that the rules then (1961) were that married women could not continue to fly for the airline (or maybe any airline)”

    My aunt was a flight attendant, and she was married, but that was later than 1961 because I remember it… probably early 70’s. She worked for Pan-am, so that gives an end of range.

  20. Shrug: Kid who grew up next door was mad about subs, wanted to be one since he was knee-high. Then he wound up growing to 6’5″. No subs for him!

    His younger brother was mad for basketball and wound up about 5’9″.

    Life ain’t fair.

  21. In the 50s runway models are supposed to be striking and exotic and slightly intimidating… out of reach but desirable for the average shlub watching them the goal is to make the shlub vaguely unsatisfied; unsatisfied people spend money. Stewardess where supposed to be cute and accommodating and to cater to passengers.

  22. A space center, I think Huntsville, had a Gemini capsule you could climb into. Once you do the reason for the height limit on astronauts becomes obvious.
    I agree with Bill that tall women were considered attractive back then. The restriction might be due to ease of moving around the cabin – or it might be so the stewardesses didn’t tower over the pilots. I could see that kind of pettiness back then.

  23. I remember the first time I flew on a Canadian Forces service flight (1985). The flight attendants were military personnel, IIRC they wore a vest/waistcoat over their 3B Service Dress (short sleeve shirt). They were majority male in those days. From what I gather, flight attendant is/was not a military MOC, it was a specialty out-of-trade assignment for a fixed tour duration. Now there is an MOC of Flight Steward (RCAF), or Steward (RCN) who can become a Flight Steward; appatently anyone can be a Flight Attendant, it seems to be a “reward” posting.

  24. @ James Pollock “arbitrarily discarding a large portion of them” – I don’t know if it happened in the US version of The Office but in the UK one David Brent reduced the stack of job applications on his desk by dumping half of them in the bin in order to eliminate all the unlucky people.

  25. More or less the same reason Hooters servers have to be female and attractive and meet height and weight limits. Those are considered BFOQ or Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications. Flight attendants are a point of contact for customers and the Marketing department has a pretty big stake in them.

  26. All logistical concerns (about bending over seats, uniform or dress sizes, etc) aside, airline stewardesses and runway models are seen in very different circumstances. The different roles are relevant, but even if you wanted to give the same impression (although I believe that even back then the stewardesses had safety roles), different statures might be desirable. With the models, you’re seeing them from further away, and from a different angle than the stewardesses, who might bruise a fragile ego by towering over someone who is seated right next to them.

  27. Mark, I can understand Hooters, but why would a flight attendant’s appearance be BFOQ any more than the girl who asks me whether I want fries with my Big Mac?

  28. Now that airlines have male stewards, btw, the general height requirement if 5-3 to 6-1 — which indicates there was never any LEGITIMATE reason for prohibiting tall women

  29. Whether something is a BFOQ depends on what you think the “job” is, and that’s not completely obvious for a Hooters server or a flight attendant (at least, in the past). If you think a Hooters server’s job is primarily to bring you food, then neither their gender, nor attractiveness, are BFOQs. If you think a substantial portion of their job is to provide titillation for heterosexual male customers, then those are BFOQs. Currently for flight attendants, we don’t think of sexual allure as a primary component of the job, but in the past, airlines claimed it was.

    Here’s the case that ruled gender was not a BFOQ for flight attendants. From the airline’s argument:

    “Southwest reasons it may discriminate against males because its attractive female flight attendants and ticket agents personify the airline’s sexy image and fulfill its public promise to take passengers skyward with ‘love.'”

    Cycling back to the original question in this thread: the plantiffs also argued that the maximum height requirment was a pretext to discriminate against men.

  30. Models are specifically supposed to be tall for clothing design reasons; it has nothing to do with perceived attractiveness.

  31. CIDU Bill, the marketing department could make the claim that the airline will get more repeat customers with female flight attendants than male flight attendants, but per Winter Wallaby’s case, that argument would not hold up in court. However, I don’t think I have ever seen a terribly unattractive flight attendant.

  32. Mark in Boston – I believe that airlines tend to still have fairly strict grooming guidelines, including makeup for the women. A lot of how attractive a woman is lies in well-done hair and makeup. It’s not necessarily going to make her into a supermodel, but she’s unlikely to be worse than “average”. (Makeup requirements for women are still legal, right?)

  33. @Christine: “(Makeup requirements for women are still legal, right?)”

    Probably, just as some professional sports teams apparently can enforce “no beards” rule for their players. (I’m surprised that bearded fans don’t organize and protest the implicit insult.)

  34. ” I don’t know if it happened in the US version of The Office but in the UK one David Brent reduced the stack of job applications on his desk by dumping half of them in the bin in order to eliminate all the unlucky people.”

    Assuming that it’s luckier to be employed somewhere else, this procedure may not be helpful.

  35. Originally to be a stewardess one had to be a nurse – I kid you not – they were there to reassure people that if anything happened there would be a nurse at hand. Not for crashes I have assumed, but if someone fainted or panicked at being up in the air or such I have guessed.

    Once they changed from medical to hostessing they wanted cute young women. They also wanted light (in weight) women so that may be why under 5’6″. Other reason might be so they did not hit their heads in short areas of the plane.

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