Uniforming the Airline Industry
An article for Aviation Security International
By Sue Stedman of Sue Stedman Corporate Clothing Limited
Cabin crews’ uniforms are perhaps the feature that most clearly distinguishes one airline from another – be it the sophisticated boutique style of Singapore Airlines, or the causal but cheerful orange identity of EasyJet. Despite the wide ranging styles, however, these uniforms have a common theme: they are an important feature of airline security.
Being an air steward or stewardess is a career that schoolchildren aspire to as being one of the most glamorous occupations. But a closer look at the uniforms used by airlines reveals that the image executed through the uniform is not one of glamour, but of confidence. And it is that confidence which, through gaining trust and respect, enables a cabin crew member to be a good security professional.
Figures of authority are traditionally identified by their uniforms. Whether it be that of a policeman, surgeon, army officer or judge, a specific uniform both enables the figure of authority to be easily identified and commands the respect that is associated with their position. This is particularly true of airlines and certainly in the current environment of heightened security, we take assurance in being able to easily identify official figures by their clothing.
Just as in the case of a policeman or army officer the straight lines and traditional cut of the uniform present an authoritative image, confidence can be communicated psychologically by a cabin crew’s uniform. It is no surprise, therefore, that airlines frequently opt in favour of tailored suits accessorised with ties, lapel badges and hats which add to the air of distinctive formality. When floral design and patterns are used, the design generally appears only on the blouse or tie, enabling a more tailored suit to establish an authoritative image.
The colour, as well as the cut, helps present an appropriate impression. Of course a wide palette of colours is used by designers of cabin crew attire, with some Caribbean countries’ bright colours and strong patterns contrasting strongly British Airways’ navy blue, but specific colours are always chosen for a reason.
Colour has a psychological effect on both the wearer and their customer. Putting the staff into dreary, cold, dark colours does not necessarily mean that they come across as efficient and professional; whereas a brighter, more cheerful uniform can bring about enthusiasm, and in doing so, considerably benefit customer services. This effect is seen no more clearly than in a recent fashion makeover by the Japanese prisons authority, where orange and green have been introduced to reduce violence. Announcing the new uniform, Shigemi Tanimoto of the Justice Ministry commented, “Colour experts told us the colours currently in use were too cold and aggressive. We hope to stabilise the mental states of inmates by giving them warmer and brighter colours.”
Sue Stedman Corporate Clothing has designed uniforms for a number of security professionals in the past, and the specific requirements have meant that I too have used a wide range of colours. A security team for a shopping centre, for example, required a uniform which stood out from the shoppers and was easily recognisable. In this case we opted for purple and the design worked extremely well. On the other hand security staff are sometimes required to maintain a quiet presence – perhaps even camouflaged against the backdrop – and so a more subtle colour is required.
It is important, too, that colours reflect that of the airlines’ logo, so as to be easily recognisable. An official appearance which fits the company’s corporate identity needs to be maintained, but at the same time, the airline mustn’t forget that the majority of their customers are holiday-makers and do not wish to be inhibited by an austere or overly intimidating uniform.
Striking the right balance between leisure and business travel is difficult. After all, where else would a family with four small tired children and the chief executive of a multinational company be literally side-by-side, in such a confined space, and for such a long time, as on a long-haul flight? The uniform has to feel comforting to children and confidence-making for chief executive.
Despite a history of errors from which we might hope to learn, some airlines have struggled to address these issues.
In the 1970s, the US-based Southwest Airlines declared 'sex sells seats', and dressed stewards in hotpants and white boots. Ticket sales soared – but that doesn’t mean that ticket sales didn’t dwindle among older fliers from the Bible Belt. And ultimately this might have addressed the fun and glamorous side of air travel but it didn’t necessarily establish the cabin crew as security professionals, which at the end of the day is their most important role.
As recently as 2001, British Airways commissioned Julien Macdonald, the British glamour designer of the year, to design a "sexy" uniform for its cabin crew. Macdonald is famed for having designed career-resurrecting dresses for celebrities such as Joely Richardson and Kelly Brook and it was hoped that the new uniform would have a similarly life-saving affect on BA’s corporate reputation. Julien Macdonald said of his plans for BA, "I want to bring glamour back to travel. The girls will look very sexy and the men will look like strong heroes."
Instead of enhancing the airline’s public image, however, BA’s corporate reputation suffered a blow when the Transport and General Workers Union reacted strongly. A TGWU spokesman said: "We would like BA to distance itself from comments made by the designer. For us, cabin crew are safety professionals, not marketing tools for BA. Their uniforms should be functional, smart and presentable."
When Virgin Atlantic opted for a more sexy uniform recently, the response was even more extreme, with the chosen designer opting not to take on the job for fear that the proposed tight, revealing look wouldn’t mix well with customers getting into the holiday frame of mind while making the most of the complementary bar.
In fact, other than these notable exceptions, airlines are generally resistant to changes in fashion. Many major airlines have only recently introduced trousers for women, despite women having worn trousers since the Second Word War!
In styles of corporate clothing generally, there has undoubtedly been a move towards the more casual, but does this work with airlines? Some of the budget airlines have inevitably adopted a less formal uniform to represent their style generally, but in fact EasyJet dropped its polo shirt and jeans outfit for a more formal approach, finding that it was necessary for the cabin crew to look “more respectable".
An established and conventional look reinforces the expectation that staff are trained and competent professionals. This shorthand has transcended the corporate image of the most PR-conscious and trendy airline of them all.
The reason is that casual uniforms just don’t inspire confidence, and this has to be the prime objective of any cabin crew’s uniform. I have designed casual uniforms but for record shops and family restaurants. Positions of authority require a serious uniform which can be recognised as such. This is why some uniforms, such as nurses’ uniforms, haven’t changed in decades.
I have also found that there is a tendency that casual dress can lead to casual attitudes – whereas a professional’s attire should reflect and underline the seriousness of the job. When we engage with someone in a position of authority, we want to be confident in the person we are dealing with, to reassure us that our trust is in safe hands. In the case of airline staff, this effect is multiplied as our safety is entirely within their control. Thus a smart, streamlined and corporate image which promotes trust and dependence communicates the most important messages.
A smart uniform also prevents people making social judgements about staff based on their dress, be the style fuddy-duddy or youthful, liberal or conservative, expensive or shoddy. Just as casual simply doesn’t work for airlines, neither does scruffiness – because scruffiness, too, can create a lack of respect, and lack of respect can lead to both bad behaviour and a failure of confidence.
The most successful corporate uniforms are tightly controlled by the organisation’s HR department. If the uniform policy is not strictly adhered to, the affect can be counter productive. For many years Sue Stedman Ltd has provided uniforms to the airport handling company, Aviance (formerly Gatwick Handling International) and when designing the uniform, we produced a guidance booklet which advised on how the uniforms should be worn. That booklet is strictly adhered to by staff and upheld by the HR department.
To suggest that few people really know how to dress may sound like an exaggeration, but if this were not the case, Trinny & Susannah would not be household names and their books bestsellers. Body piercing, tattoos and ankle chains for example, are appreciated by some, but an airline needs to consider how the remaining – and significantly larger – section of the population would respond.
Similarly, airlines should bear in mind that one size and one shape doesn’t fit all. Thus the chosen design must be suitable for a range of shapes and sizes. Unfortunately this applies to colour too. Red is a great colour for inspiring confidence as well as standing out, and as such might be the perfect choice for an air cabin crew – except that red can be difficult to wear, particularly for those with red hair or pale skin. As a result it is very rarely used for corporate uniforms - unless trimmed with back or grey, which can be placed at the face.
The right for an individual to express his or her religious identity and the extent to which religious and cultural identity may be accommodated is a more thorny issue, but one which organisations are obliged to face – as was seen recently when Ikea opted to introduce a branded hijab to its new Edmonton store in north London because of the large numbers of Islamic staff. My experience however is that UK based airlines rarely request long sleeves or skirts because of religious reasons and if it is necessary, single exceptions can be made, rather than determining the design overall.
The safety of clothing is crucial for airline staff. Long skirts, for example, can restrict movement and are particularly dangerous when combined with high heels, as heels can become caught in hems. Ties, too, can be a safety hazard and in fact many organisations that I have designed uniforms for have opted for clip-on ties. This prevents them being grabbed in case of air-rage and used to used to harm airline staff. For similar reasons, both large earrings and necklaces are banned.
A uniform enables staff to become ambassadors for their company and act accordingly. Invariably because they look smart and feel comfortable they are able to portray an assured, confident and professional image. In being dressed in the company colours, airline staff immediately represent their company. A uniform that they enjoy wearing is important in motivating them to do so to the best of their ability.
The motivational impact of a corporate uniform should not be underestimated. If a uniform commands respect, then the wearer is likely to act with respect.
As with any significant change, the best way to engender enthusiasm for a new uniform is to involve staff in the process, giving them a degree of ownership in the decision. Ideally companies should canvas views during the design stage and undertake wearer trials to test whether proposed garments can stand up effectively to the day-to-day rigours of the job, but the limitations of consultation must be understood and the final decision requires senior input. Because a uniform is central to the organisation’s image, it must be strongly ingrained in the company culture. I am always careful to get to know clients’ companies well: we carry out substantial research prior to even taking a brief from our client. We make it our responsibility to understand the company’s culture, corporate identity and ambitions for change in order to propose designs which are truly representative of the company and its staff.
The introduction of a corporate uniform impacts on all aspects of the company’s output, simultaneously affecting staff motivation, customer services, internal communications and branding. As such, it is a human resources issue which needs to be managed strategically across all departments and requires extremely sensitive handling.
I do not know of an airline which doesn’t uniform its staff and I suspect that the need for the highest possible levels of security is the reason for this.