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Amelia Earhart: Using Fashion to Inspire Flight

Posted on Sun, July 24, 2016
  • by: MaryCate Most, Digital Experiences Intern
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Today we celebrate Amelia Earhart’s birthday as well as her accomplishments in flight and as a public figure. Most are familiar with Earhart’s aviation career and her mysterious disappearance, but her other achievements can be easily overlooked.

Did you know Earhart created a clothing line called “Amelia Fashions” in 1933? Earhart had been interested in flying apparel for women for years. At the beginning of her career, Earhart had to wear aviation suits that were designed for men and poorly fitted for a woman. There was nothing else available.

Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden sitting alongside one another on the running board of a convertible automobile. Image: NASM 89-21979

Amelia’s fashion line was made up of wrinkle-free dresses, skirts, pants, and outerwear. Some designs even used materials such as parachute silk and fabric used for airplane wings. The outfits were crafted for practicality and designed to suit the needs of “active women.” They broke the mold for traditional women’s dress during the 1930s.

Earhart initially used her own sewing machine, dress form, and seamstress to create her clothing. She even modeled her own designs for promotional spreads. Image: SI-A-44451

While ultimately unsuccessful, “Amelia Fashions” set an example for women everywhere that there was nothing they could not do whether that meant flying a plane or becoming a designer.

Although Amelia herself was shy, she did not back down from the task of elevating the role of women in aviation and society. Serving as the first president for the Ninety-Nines, a society of female aviators, Earhart set out to prove that women didn’t have to fit into the role that was expected of them at the time. Amelia encouraged her fellow female pilots to fly more often with her “Hat of the Month” program, which awarded the Ninety-Nine who flew into the most airports with a Stetson hat she had designed herself.

She also designed a practical two-piece flying suit with interlocking “9s” for the Ninety-Nines, although it was never formally adopted. The suit is on display in our Pioneers of Flight gallery.

Amelia Earhart designed this practical two-piece flying suit (includes pants) with interlocking “9s” for the Ninety-Nines, but it was never formally adopted.

Group photograph of many of the charter members of the women pilots' organization The Ninety-Nines, photographed seated at Curtiss Field, Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, on November 2, 1929. Image: NASM 2005-7753

In 1935, Phoebe Omlie said in an article for the National Aeronautics Magazine that Amelia was, “all woman and one that the other women of America can proudly put up as an example of their contribution to the progress of this great generation.”

In a conversation with Louise Thaden, Amelia once said, “We can fly — you know that.” But Amelia was not satisfied keeping this knowledge between herself and other female aviators. Even though proving to the world that women were smart, capable flyers was often like butting their heads “into a stone wall,” Amelia and her peers in the Ninety-Nines decided to change society’s perception of women through flight and, occasionally, through fashion.