Behind the Scenes


Commercial Flight Uniforms: On Display and in Good Hands

America by Air - Uniform and Travel Insurance Machine

The America by Air gallery is not entirely about airplanes. Uniforms worn by pilots, flight attendants, customer service agents and others will help illustrate on an intimate level how the airline industry has evolved in the United States. Approximately 31 authentic uniforms will be on display in the gallery.

“I wanted to put a human face with the machinery,” said America by Air curator, Bob van der Linden. “The uniforms allow people to make a personal connection.”


“Mod” Uniforms


For instance, many visitors will recognize the colorful stewardess uniform designed by fashion designer Emilio Pucci for Braniff International Airways, or the orange hat and poncho worn by Air California attendants in the 1960s. These avant-garde designs were de rigueur then, when stylish stewardesses were just one part of the marketing efforts airlines used to lure passengers.

All the uniforms on display are genuine, not reproductions, and must be preserved for posterity. Thus, all are given the white-glove treatment by Museum employees.

America by Air - Flight Attendant Uniforms

“Mod” Mannequins

America by Air - Dressing Mannequins

Mannequin displays have come a long way since the early days when the Museum used generic dressmaker’s dummies, such as one might find in a department store. America by Air mannequins were custom-made to display the clothing in a pleasing way that would also prevent deterioration.

With sleek, brushed-aluminum spheres for heads and thin poles for legs, the new mannequins are works of art in their simplicity. “They were not intended to look like people, but to show off the uniforms,” says exhibition designer, Barbara Brennan. “We did not want to distract from the garments.”

The material composition of the mannequins is very important, and it too has been improved over the years. Ethafoam™, a polyethylene material commonly used for museum applications, gives form to the trunks and arms. Chemist Chris Cole performed several tests to make sure materials would not react with the uniforms in a negative way. According to Cole, “the selected materials and design effectively minimize any risk to the uniforms due to unwanted chemical reactions.”

America by Air - Mannequin Prototypes

A Perfect Fit Every Time

America by Air - Dressing Mannequins

Each mannequin was customized to fit a specific article of clothing. Employees took precise measurements of each garment, which were used to create the mannequins’ Ethafoam cores, resulting in a perfect fit. The design allows more space between the mannequin and the uniform than a human form would. This is better for preserving the clothing and does not stretch the materials.

Features such as detachable limbs make dressing the mannequins easy. Workers cover the forms in stockingette, a flexible knitted cloth, to provide a smooth surface over which the garments can drape. Arms are simply fed into the sleeves of shirts or jackets and then attached to the body. To keep a hat from sliding off the slick surface of a mannequin’s head, Ethafoam is molded to the hat’s measurements and then attached using VELCRO®.

Special Cases


More fragile items, such as a 1918 air mail pilot’s leather jacket from Abercrombie & Fitch with a slight tear in the arm, require special care. Its mannequin was designed with a bend in the arm to distribute and support the weight of the leather.

A pair of tights from the 1960s also created a challenge, according to museum specialist, Jeannie Whited. “In giving the tights form, we had to find a happy medium between filling them out, which would overstretch the fabric, and not filling them out enough and having the legs look too small in proportion to the rest of the body.”

America by Air - Dressing Mannequins

Behind The Scenes