The Down-To-Earth Glamour Girls

Relaxing in her Brisbane pad, ex-hostess and author Libbie Escolme-Schmidt, reminisces with a smile.

“If you mentioned you were an air hostess, men became suddenly interested in you,” laughs Ms Escolme-Schmidt, who hasn’t lost any of her glamour.

“The cachet was enormous. Being an air hostess was a magnet for attention and we played to that aura.”

In the 1960s air hostesses were goddesses of the air and dressed by their respective airline to kill or at least lure male passengers aboard and the aircraft aisle was their catwalk.

“Back then flying was exclusive, it was adventurous,” she said.

“There was an atmosphere of optimism, excitement and a feeling of boundless opportunity for both passengers and airline crew. The Sixties was a time of big air expansion and being an air stewardess was tremendously exciting. For quite a while I couldn’t believe I was taking money for the job. I seemed to be going from party to party all over the world.”

Four years in the planning, Ms Escolme-Schmidt’s book Glamour in the Skies is the first to celebrate the stewardesses of British Airways and their predecessors from 1936 to 1980, widely agreed the golden age of air travel.

The book is a defining piece of work documenting with wonderful tales and humour air travel between the 1930s and 1980s, with interviews from retired and current cabin crew, weaving a journey following the development of the female flight attendant through the early years of discrimination to her present-day career of equality.

From the role of a nurse in the 1930s in a military-style uniform, female flight attendants morphed in the 1950s and 1960s into iconic sex symbols who spawned many movies and broke many hearts.

But in the formative years of airlines there was no glamour and certainly no females.

The first flight attendant, a male steward, served on the German Zeppelin LZ10 airship in 1911.

Imperial Airways, the forerunner of British Airways, had cabin boys in the 1920s and in the US Stout Airways hired stewards in 1926. Western Airlines and Pan Am quickly followed.

The first female flight attendant was registered nurse Ellen Church, who was hired by Boeing Air Transport, later United Airlines, in 1930.

Ms Church convinced Boeing that nurses would both calm passengers’ fears of flying and perform a positive role in caring for passengers who more often than not were airsick.

Many airlines quickly followed and when WWII broke out the requirement to be a nurse was dropped because most had enlisted.

After the war airlines quickly hired a virtual army of female flight attendants who had been working as radio operators and pilots during the conflict, says Ms Escolme-Schmidt.

“They still had the spirit of adventure and were used to working with men in uniform. They were fresh-faced, sensible, and with little make-up. There was a healthy, commonsense approach to the profession.”

However, this was soon to change as airlines realised that sex sold – and sold to high-paying business passengers who were at the time mostly male.

Airlines such as Pacific Southwest Airlines, Braniff and National touted sex heavily.

Ms Escolme-Schmidt’s own stint in the wide blue and sexy yonder began in 1964 when, as a student from Queensland, she joined British Overseas Airways Corporation, later British Airways, for the time of her life.

“Trips could be as long as 28 days, including lots of time off. A typical trip would take you from London to New York, then across to San Francisco or Los Angeles. The next stop would be Honolulu, followed by Fiji, Sydney and Hong Kong. I probably went round the world about 11 times a year. It was one long holiday of touring, shopping and partying.”

And rather than a one-day stop for the crew, airline schedules meant that in many cases they would spend three or more days at some destinations, waiting to crew the next return flight or the continuation of the round-the-world service.

Ms Escolme-Schmidt reflects that when she joined the application forms were more about your form than substance.

“Applications required a recent photo with measurements of height, weight, bust, waist and hip.”

They even stated that the applicant “should have a neatly proportioned figure and be of pleasing appearance,” said Ms Escolme-Schmidt.

“When we did the Caribbean run, we had dresses made from paper.”

“They were absurd. If you spilt a drink down the front, they disintegrated. Another airline had dresses made out of a gold paper.

“The real worry was that in those days passengers were allowed to smoke and we feared that our dresses – and their contents – would go up in smoke.”

Compiling the reminiscences of fellow cabin crew from the 1940s to the 1980s, Ms Escolme-Schmidt provides a fascinating, frank and often funny portrait of life in the skies during the halcyon days of air travel.

Glamour in the Skies is packed with many anecdotes, ranging from administering oxygen to passengers flying over the Andes, to serving French champagne on Concorde.

Covering training, sexual discrimination, disasters, passengers, glamorous stopovers and other temptations, this illustrated book presents the changing times in air travel through the eyes of the stewardess and offers the perfect tribute to the girls who walked the skies.
When asked if she misses flying Ms Escolme-Schmidt says a big no. “That sort of flying doesn’t exist any more,” she says.

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