This article uses a case study of a highly publicized 1970 controversy over Canadian Pacific Air Lines’ flight attendant uniforms—specifically, a switch from mini to midi skirt—as a case study in business-labor relations concerning the regulation of women workers’ bodily appearance. Using company and union records and employing a historical, materialist, and feminist analysis, we trace how notions of aesthetic and emotional labor changed over time in relation to the political economy, gender ideologies, and the agency of workers themselves. The flight attendants’ reluctance to challenge the airline’s sexist advertising indicated how both accommodation and resistance were intertwined in complex ways in the workplace. Their acceptance of more “thigh in the sky” had much to do with a highly regulated and disciplined workplace, an entrenched division of labor on the airplane, and gendered notions of beauty and glamour in the industry, including women’s strategic use of beauty on the job to their own advantage.
In 1970, Canadian Pacific Air Lines (CP) announced with some fanfare that it was moving with the fashionable times, introducing a midi skirt for stewardesses as part of a larger project of multiple “non-uniform uniforms” that altered with the seasons.1 Faced with ensuing customer backlash against covered stewardess legs, the company hired an American public relations firm, identified a strategy for capitalizing on the controversy, altered its marketing, and ultimately resurrected a previous uniform with a shorter skirt. With expertly manufactured press coverage, CP announced weeks later that, to the relief of its “aisle-watching” male customers, the airline was again showing some “thigh in the sky.”2 The flight attendant (FA) response to this sexualization of their labor was largely acquiescent in the public realm. Even their private reservations were subdued, owing not only to the company’s long-established power to dress its employees as it chose but also to the historic feminization and occupational segmentation of the job and the company’s successful recruitment, socialization, and disciplining of female workers into appropriate gender roles and aesthetic identities.
The midi skirt controversy is a revealing case study in business-labor relations concerning the regulation of women workers’ bodily appearance. On one hand, it confirms the expropriation of gender and sexuality by employers for profit, but on the other, it demonstrates the dualism at the heart of working women’s responses to objectification, which included both accommodation and resistance, acceptance and discomfort. The employer clearly won this battle, and FAs’ refusal to engage critically with the “thigh in the sky” campaign—when feminism was in the air, and other airlines’ FAs were beginning to protest appearance regulations—might at first glance appear out of step with the international history of FA organizing against sexism.3 Not so: while women’s resistance to employers’ marketing of their bodies was one part of the story, so too was women’s persisting accommodation to appearance regulation, encouraged by dominant ideologies of gender, the gendered segmentation of the airline workforce, employer discipline, and women’s agency in making the positive parts of the job their own. Not only did feminist FA organizing against sexism assume divergent contours across different airlines, countries, and labor regimes, but importantly, accommodation and resistance—both informal and formal—exist as two sides of the workplace coin, often intertwined in complex and contradictory ways.4
By analyzing both company archives and union records, we can surmise why this airline had such obvious success in controlling the discursive message about women’s bodies on the job. We need to probe airlines’ perceived business goals, needs, and public relations strategies within a changing economy as well as workers’ negotiated responses to the labor relations context—in other words, the relationship between workers’ bodies and capitalist profit. Exploring how both capital and labor organized, managed, imagined, and negotiated work that was associated with the body, attire, and sexuality provides insight into the gendered regulation of embodied labor in the airline industry. This research also contributes to the ongoing dialogue, pioneered within labor history, of the way in which labor and capital are always implicitly and explicitly imbricated with each other in a historical relationship of contradiction and change.5
Explorations of the laboring body as a “category of analysis” by scholars like Eileen Boris and Ava Baron have similarly examined the interplay of capitalist organization, state regulation, and the agency of laboring bodies, reminding us that even if the body “gains meaning through discourse, it is not reducible to it.”6 As Rosemary Hennessy argues, rather than assigning labor and capital to economic theory and the body to postmodern theory, the connections between labor and sexual identity, capitalism, and commodification necessitate a unified materialist-feminist analysis that attends to capitalist social relations, culture-ideology, and human agency.7 Though the body is, in one sense, “an accumulation strategy”8 integrated into the circuits of capital, it is also always an unfinished project, situated in historically specific power relations, including those of gender, race, and class, and shaped by workers’ own agency, expressed through strategies that range from open resistance to more subtle acquiescence. Both were part of FAs’ ongoing responses to CP’s efforts to dress their employees according to the changing needs of capital.
Constructing Gendered Labor in the Canadian Airline Industry
Although the body at work has been a noticeable lacuna in the field of body studies,9 feminist labor historians have been more attentive to the regulation of bodies on the job, with histories of FAs leading the way in their analyses of embodied labor, women’s increasing resistance over time to their sexual objectification, and, more recently, issues of sexual orientation.10 While attention to union organization, resistance, and worker agency has been one of the strengths of US-centered historical writing by scholars like Kathleen Barry, social science scholars examining contemporary work in the international airline industry have often explored management regulation, organizational theory, and the cultivation and commodification of both emotional labor and the gendered “performativity” of aesthetic labor.11 Both the historical explication of the conditions encouraging FA resistance and contemporary sociological studies of emotional and aesthetic labor are relevant to the Canadian work experience, although the industry did have some national peculiarities in terms of gender makeup and union history.
At the major Canadian airlines, the FA workforce was historically divided into male and female jobs: there were distinct occupational roles and aesthetic images for male pursers (or “stewards”) and female stewardesses. Male pursers were used on the more physically demanding overseas flights, and their jobs were described in masculine language: they were to oversee “important” regulations such as immigration and customs forms and were “an integral part of the five-man team operating the aircraft.”12 While American airlines moved away from male attendants in the 1950s,13 CP enhanced its recruitment of European-born pursers, especially those with experience in the food, wine, and hotelier industries; they were to project a sophisticated maître d’ image on longer flights,14 many of which covered international routes to Pacific-rim countries. Purser privileges were also linked to a family breadwinner ideal and to men’s assumed natural supervisory skills, since pursers were in charge of larger planes with multiple stewardesses. Male pursers were thus encouraged to identify as professionals with knowledge and skills, whereas women were persuaded to equate their work with naturalized feminine attributes, ranging from attractive bodies to caring personalities.15 Heterosexist and patriarchal assumptions branded body work differently, and this gendered occupational segregation left an enduring mark on CP’s workplace organization.
The Canadian industry was more heavily regulated, with fewer competitive carriers than in the United States, and the dominant carrier, Trans Canada (later Air Canada), was a Crown corporation managed with state oversight. A private carrier, Canadian Pacific Air Lines, was the next largest player in the industry. By the 1950s, the airlines were also highly unionized, with only one bargaining agent for FAs. Although male pursers and female stewardesses originally organized as two distinct unions just after World War II, the federal Labour Relations Board forced them to certify as one union—the Canadian Air Line Flight Attendants’ Association (CALFAA)—in 1948.16 Men and women occupied two streams within the union, divided by different job descriptions, pay levels, ladders of promotion, rules about marriage and retirement. In the late 1960s, stewardesses were beginning to question these distinctions. If there were not enough male pursers available, women became acting pursers, and CALFAA bargained an additional wage premium for their temporary labor. But a few stewardesses began to ask why they could do a man’s job but not have access to it. CP stewardesses noted the humiliation of the strict division of labor as women watched junior men with less experience parachuted into purser positions above them.17
Conflict over gendered job rights and integrated seniority lists eventually sparked a full-fledged public battle within CALFAA from 1973 to 1976—a few years after the “thigh high” incident.18 However, in contrast to the United States, where unionized stewardesses were initially involved in a partnership with the pilots’ union, there was not a struggle for FA “union autonomy” spread over multiple unions.19 Race, gender, equity, and human rights issues (and indeed legal regimes) were also different in the United States.20 The midi controversy, however, did emerge at the point, internationally, when some women FAs were beginning to question job limitations and the sexualized roles they were expected to play—though again, in contrast to the United States, Canadian FAs tended to use their long-established union to launch grievances rather than create an autonomous “stewardess rights” organization.21 CALFAA’s politics did shift in concert with both new feminist ideas and a more assertive labor movement. Although it began as a fairly weak, decentralized union in the 1950s, intent on establishing its “professional” character, CALFAA morphed into a more militant union by the late 1960s with a paid director who was interested in pushing the envelope on gender discrimination issues. Only two years before the midi debate, under his direction, CALFAA presented a brief to the federal Royal Commission on the Status of Women, objecting to the “bunny club” philosophy that shaped airlines’ attitudes toward their female FAs.22 This intervention was never mentioned in the CP midi controversy.
Despite emerging public challenges to the sexualization of female FAs, there were strong carryovers at CP in FA socialization and outlook from an earlier time period. From the inception of the “stewardess” occupation, the job was endowed with a particular image of femininity through body type, uniform, and demeanor. Like all airlines, CP subjected their female FAs to strict rules regarding age, height, teeth (white and straight), and weight. Airlines told applicants they must be “attractive,” outgoing, pleasant, and personable, not wear eyeglasses, and have “a smile” that is “generous, genuine, and in good working order because you’ll be using it often.”23 The appropriately slender body remained one constant over time. In the 1950s, a potential applicant was asked to submit “a recent full-length snapshot” to ascertain her body type.24 In the early 1970s, an employer simply asked one applicant to “stand up and turn around” at her interview so he could inspect her body.25
When performing femininity, FAs had to walk a fine line between gregariousness and refinement; even CALFAA lauded an ideal type of “ladylike” demeanor as part of their claim on professionalism.26 CP drew on and cultivated existing “dispositions”27 of ideal femininity ingrained in the dominant culture, but this service labor also involved women drawing on their emotional reserve—and suppressing any conflicting emotions—to offer the attentiveness, care, and geniality expected of them. Both emotional labor (the smiling, soothing, attentive woman) and aesthetic labor (cultivating the appropriate style of appearance) were part of the job. Although defined differently in scholarly writing, aesthetic and emotional labor are often intertwined in practice: they were tightly bound, indivisible elements of the work process.28
To be sure, some shifts occurred in the airline-constructed image between the first stewardesses hired in Canada in 1938 and the much-expanded workforce of the 1970s. Female FAs were initially constructed as glamorous and useful, a combination of “Venus and Florence Nightingale.”29 References to imminent respectable matrimony and stewardesses’ nursing training suggested a very wholesome, girl-next-door image. Canadian airline promotional photos reinforced the moral femininity of stewardesses; they attended to babies and mothers, aided older passengers, and, during World War II, sold Victory Bonds. Uniforms were tailored, military-like, and sedate in color and style. In the 1940s, there was the occasional publicity cheesecake leg shot, but these were rare. By the early 1970s, changing images of beauty and fashion, along with airline competition for customer attention, were reflected in promotional photos showing a stewardess in a short skirt, coyly peeking out from inside the phallic fuselage of the aircraft, showy legs dangling. Two cartoons capture well this shift from girl-next-door to sexpot. The first one, published in the 1940s, lamented the constant turnover and loss of a stewardess to respectable matrimony. The second, which spoke directly to the CP midi controversy, featured a nude, curvaceous stewardess garnering the attention of male eyes on board.30
Airlines recruited FAs from among applicants who, at least in part, consented to the required standards of gregariousness and attractiveness. How much they embraced or just tolerated the image varied among individuals and their job motivations, such as decent pay, flexible schedules, and free travel. Nonetheless, recruitment was designed to find women who would agree to showcase the appropriate aesthetic and emotional prerequisites for the job. The idea that on-the-job performance through the power of aesthetics, in which gendered dispositions are cultivated and promoted, is somehow a recent invention of the post-Fordist service economy is thus questionable: the gendered dispositions of these Fordist-era FAs were also nurtured and promoted in the same way, an indication of enduring features of feminized service jobs.31 Recruitment material that was used to attract applicants in the 1960s showed women receiving makeup lessons, under hair dryers (getting makeovers), and practicing serving drinks. Even the emergency training looked fashionably fun: women in swimsuits and swim caps practiced “ditching” in a swimming pool with handsome male swim teachers.32
Once hired, the socialization process continued. Women had to adhere to strict uniform and grooming regulations that covered all aspects of their appearance from head to toe, including undergarments (the required girdle), and accept that their service labor required extra off-the-job “body work,” as they reproduced the requisite body and look through self-monitoring, surveillance, and various forms of body care.33 Though there were no overt white-only hiring policies in the Canadian industry, incorporated into these beauty requirements was likely an unstated assumption that the ideal look was Euro-Canadian—though CP did hire Asian stewardesses for its Pacific routes. FAs who transgressed these regulations faced a range of corrective actions, from gentle guilting and reprimand to a note in their personnel file to formal discipline, suspensions, and dismissal. CP used a “brownie point” system. Employees accrued merit and demerit points, and after twelve months, if there were sixty demerit points (representing about three infractions) the worker could be fired.34 Random and required inspections were employed to discipline workers, but self-discipline—managing one’s own appearance—was constantly invoked as the means of keeping an unblemished personnel file.
Women were not merely passive recipients of management orders about appearance. Enjoyment, accommodation, negotiation, manipulation, and resistance were all evident in the way they dealt with the beauty and personality requirements of the job. Scrapbooks kept by FAs who worked from the 1940s to the 1960s demonstrate their enjoyment of the beauty and fashion connotations of the job. They collected pictures of the many fancy-dress dances and balls sponsored by the airlines, luncheons where they (in hats and gloves) received recognition of their good service, and more informal mixed-gender social events with music, dancing, and socializing.35 Fashion, makeup, and socializing were integrated into both informal networks and the formal work environments.
In oral histories, FAs also comment extensively on the changing designer uniforms that defined the “look” of their daily work and how the dresses made them “feel.” They wanted to appear attractive, though they also valued comfort and had a sense of humor about regulations. When airlines were still pressing women to take a layoff during pregnancy, one company introduced a new “over-blouse with polka dots” to wear while serving drinks. One stewardess “just laughed” because it became an ideal camouflage for her growing belly.36 CP FAs took pleasure in what they saw as their high status and “glamorous”—though still “wholesome”—reputation.37 CP stewardesses in particular were attuned to this image, in part because many flew on “prestigious” international routes but also because Canadian Pacific promoted its own historical evolution as a company dedicated to providing luxury travel, starting with rail and ship and later extending to flight.38 CP “stews” were not above contrasting their own “classy” image to that of lesser stews from other airlines: “We always thought we were a few points up from TCA [Trans Canada Airlines] and many, many points up on the girls in the American system.”39
Their job identity as “classy” workers emerged not only because they enjoyed free travel but also because of the elite sociability and image of the well-appointed, gracious FA that went with it. When international air travel was still restricted to a wealthier few, CP FAs appreciated the chance to rub elbows with an affluent, largely male clientele. As one stewardess recalled, even if her international flights involved terrible turbulence and profusely vomiting passengers, one perk might be the opportunity to mix with the upper class: “You carried passengers who were world travelers and quite wealthy. . . . You were a lady and you were treated as if you were someone special. If they were going to Australia we would spend the day on the beach with them, and we’d do their shopping for them. On one flight we carried Lord Mountbatten’s cousin.”40
Stewardesses also manipulated their glamorous image to their collective benefit in union work. When stewardesses first negotiated with CP for a contract, a particularly “foul-mouthed” manager dismissively told them that new workers could be easily “picked up on any corner.” His affront to their sexual respectability infuriated them: “With our efficient grapevine his remarks reached the ears of every stewardess on the line within forty-eight hours, much to the company’s disfavor.”41 The women negotiators reasserted their own version of femininity:
We decided on the onset that we would wear hats each day. Since hats were in everybody’s wardrobe those days, not only did we wear our own, but the negotiating team drew on the hat wardrobes of all Vancouver stewardesses so that we were freshly “topped” every day. We negotiated in close-fitting hats, wide-brimmed hats bedecked with flowers and ribbons. . . . We were charmingly formidable. The Gov’t labor officer was enchanted with this first exposure to having ladies at his negotiating table!42
Even the CP stewardesses’ union reinforced the employer’s emphasis on gracious appointment and excellent service as a means of promoting FA “professionalism”: “Let us make our association something to be proud of,” their newsletter intoned. “Remember a good association is good for the Company. If you do not have the interest of the Company at heart then you are accepting a paycheck and not working for it.”45 These ideas lingered on for some FAs even as the union became more militant. CP FAs’ socialization to the culture of “good service” and pride in work well done was evident when one group of FAs wrote collectively and directly to the company’s president, imploring him to make logistical improvements that would allow them to do their jobs far better.46 Similarly, when CP management offered a seminar for staff to encourage service improvements, FAs made many suggestions, from providing more multilingual magazines and comics for children to regular announcements about seat belts; some of these would actually have increased, not decreased, their workload.47 These FAs were far more attuned to the needs of economy travelers than to those of the elite passengers at the center of the Executive Jet midi debate.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, under the influence of changing patterns of work and family life, feminism, and trade union activism, CALFAA was protesting marriage and pregnancy restrictions through union grievances and court cases. Nevertheless, a new cadre of feminist FAs admitted that organizing collective resistance against sexism was an uphill battle, as some FAs feared feminism’s equality agenda would “destroy our [glamorous] image.”48 Some female FAs accepted the essentialist notion that women, unlike men, inherently had the “right attitude” for service work.49 FAs’ hesitancy to fully embrace the equality agenda was deeply rooted in resilient gender ideologies, the long-standing, gendered occupational segregation in the industry, and the concurrent, constant reinforcement of differently gendered, stylized bodies through the recruitment, training, and disciplining of FAs.50 Airlines, in other words, had some success in creating the workforce they desired.
Executive Jet, the Non-uniform, and the Midi Controversy
In the fall of 1970, the gendered dynamics of the airline workforce converged with several other factors, including new economic pressures and fashion trends, to produce the CP midi controversy. In 1970, Canadian airlines were starting to feel the pinch of economic problems: rising costs and increased competition meant shrinking profits.51 From the early sixties, CP struggled with “jet indigestion”: the immense capital required for jets necessitated new sources of capital or the running of temporary deficits.52 It hoped to correct a decline in its profits by expanding its transcontinental flight service. At the time, the federal regulations limited CP to 25 percent of the total transcontinental seat-mile capacity (essentially protecting routes for Air Canada). CP had started with one cross-country flight in 1959; by 1970, the number had increased to seven. Chafing under the limits of regulation, eager to fill the seats on their increased runs across the country, and cognizant of the need to turn these transcontinental trips into bookings on their global routes,53 the airline investigated how to create more competitive choice in the market. Market research pointed to the lucrative nature of business travelers as a recurring constituency, and a consultant did a poll for CP on these travelers’ priorities. Their answers spoke to a concern with “safety and on-time flights” but also to a vaguer “craving for something different while in the air.”54 To secure this high-caliber clientele, CP rolled out its new Executive Jet program in 1970: it was geared specifically to the business-class traveler, who was perceived to be white, male, affluent, middle-aged or older, and accustomed to (or liking the idea of) being served in all aspects of his life.
CP’s Executive Jet advertising attempted to appeal to men’s sense of prestige, self-importance, and masculine entitlement: a promotional pamphlet featured a picture of an attractive stewardess on the front page, reassuring executives that they would find all the “conveniences of the office” as well as the “comforts of home” on board—male flyers would have a wife and a secretary rolled into one. Publicity thus reinforced masculine and heteronormative sexual identity by conjuring up images of service from two forms of women’s labor: reproductive and productive. At a practical level, Executive Jet offered advance check-in, excellent “home-cooked” food, free reading material, choice of fine wines and beer, and dictating equipment as part of the executive experience. Photos showed a male passenger being handed the recent bestseller The Godfather, dictating memos on a small recorder, and also enjoying conversation with a young stewardess.55 Advertisements promised other forms of in-flight entertainment. For reading material, men would receive not only the Financial Times but also Playboy and other publications that you will “not find in your home.”56 Diversionary games like “Instant Insanity” and “Soma” were also available, and they too were imbued with sexual innuendo: “Next time you fly with us, just tell the stewardess you’re in the mood to play games. She’ll understand.” A very brief aside in the promotional material noted that women, too, could partake of the executive experience, but the “sell” was having access to executive men. Women (not being executives) would not “dictate or read Fortune,” but they would be close to “smart men, aware men, MEN.”57 Presumably these were affluent women looking for their executive MRS.
To stress the novelty of the program, the Executive Jet stewardess wore a new “non-uniform” that altered with the seasons. The non-uniform uniform offered the image of a fashion-conscious executive secretary rather than that of the buttoned-down, military-looking FA of the 1950s. FA fashion allowed for “individual expression”; the styles promised to be “easy, fluid, feminine and distinctly Canadian,” as Canadian designers were used. The “girls,” who supposedly loved their new attire, would change their uniform four times a year, starting with the initial one: a pantsuit, with flared trousers, hipster waist and tunic, with other mix-and-match items as accoutrements. While a miniskirt was one of four possible styles, the exact shift was a “surprise”: what fashionable non-uniform would come next was supposedly the question that customers had on their lips when they booked CP flights.58
Neither management nor FAs anticipated the negative public response elicited by the debut of the 1970 fall “non-uniform”: a midi skirt paired with patent boots. The president of the airline received approximately two hundred letters, primarily negative, about the midi. Following the dominance of the miniskirt in the 1960s, midi skirts began showing up on runways and in fashion magazines in 1970. Though many fashion commentators promoted the new midi length, some vocal opponents (many of them male) despised it. These anti-midi men claimed the midi violated “the unalienable right of the male population to admire the female form to its best advantage.”59 In the United States, the midi debate seemed to go to ridiculous lengths when a group calling itself Fight against Dictating Designers filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint against Women’s Wear Daily, alleging that the magazine “unfairly endorsed the midi to the exclusion of all other dress lengths” and that “the implied premise that anyone who does not wear the midi is not fashionable preys on ‘the personal insecurity of the consumer.’”60 As would be the case in the CP midi controversy, few newspapers bothered to report what women thought of the skirts.
CP customers’ negative response to the midi thus reflected broader debates over changing fashions and men’s right to gawk at women’s bodies. That airline customers felt they could comment on the right of men to ogle reflected not only the accepted sexism that pervaded Canadian society at the time but also the airline industry’s entrenched practice of marketing the bodies of female FAs as part of the air travel experience.61 Concerned that the airline would suffer if business-class flyers were unhappy, CP bosses reached across the border to locate more established know-how on public relations problems: they hired a San Francisco public relations firm—Hoefer, Dietrich and Brown (HDB)—to help them deal with the customer backlash and devise a new advertising strategy. This transnational reach for expertise was the logical consequence of a much smaller Canadian advertising industry that had historically deferred to American firms as the leaders and trailblazers.62 Only two years before, CP had engaged a New York advertising firm to provide a makeover of its symbolic look, replacing its (admittedly stodgy) old logo—a beaver chewing on wood—with a space-age, abstract symbol.
Advertising and marketing in the history of commodity consumption was not unrelated to the sexualized labor demanded of the CP FAs. As historians of business and advertising show, the body and sexuality were routinely deployed “as a business strategy in creating brands, sales and marketing.”63 Public relations emerged in the twentieth century as a parallel but related strategy to “steer news coverage” in one’s favor and “influence public opinion,” not necessarily through a strict rendition of the facts but through the clever use of “emotion and instinct.”64 Though few authors have looked at the embodied labor in the actual work of public relations firms like the one used by CP,65 the history of advertising details how bodies, sexualities, and gender images were crucial to modern advertising. Since the 1960s, both marketing and public relations increasingly used social science techniques, not only to link brands with customers but also to provide advice on managing business reputations.66 Both also used studies in social science, demographics, and psychology to understand customers, including lifestyle segmentation of the market, which analyzed the standpoint of very specific consumer groups. Products that implied social acceptance, status, and luxury in particular were marketed through the promotion of a specific “personality,”67 as in the case of the Executive Jet flyer.
HDB issued a private report for CP that addressed the issue of reputation and also outlined an advertising plan. The firm urged CP to take control of the issue to their advantage rather than bury it.68 The midi controversy, HDB told them, could be manipulated into a golden “publicity opportunity.”69 The longer skirt was currently in favor with the fashion industry, but there was no knowing if it would stick or disappear into fashion oblivion: the midi’s arrival was influenced by the emergence of “women’s lib,” as women wanted “less conformity” in dress, “self expression,” and a “real change in female role re submissiveness” (HDB Paper, 1). Feminists, in other words, wanted sexual freedom but not at the price of subordination; the public relations firm seemed to have that right. The views of CP’s women workers, however, were considered irrelevant; an informal, internal poll that the company later admitted it had compiled showed that FAs favored the midi by a 60 to 40 percent margin. Nor were immediate business losses really a concern. The firm forecast “no indication of loss of business at present” (ibid.); after all, most of the resistance was just people kidding around, and the costume would be changed for next season on any account.
The future of the executive program was, however, a concern. Some of the negative letters were from executive travelers, serious “leg watchers” (ibid.) the airline wanted to entice as potential executive-class flyers. CP’s top priority must be cornering this market, not worrying about fashion, the report warned. The authors implicitly sympathized with the male customers who saw the midi as an affront to their entitlements, as if men were denied something—ogling—owed to them: the midi “excludes” males, said the report, which is an obvious problem in “selling” a new “male-oriented transcontinental program” (ibid.). The best strategy was to alter the uniform but give customers the impression that they were dictating fashion, thus reinforcing the image of an airline ever responsive to customer demands as well as the notion that male customers had a right to gaze upon FAs’ bodies (ibid., 2–3).
This was an opportunity to sell the new executive program and establish product “awareness” and “sponsor identification” at the same time (ibid.). HDB outlined a chronologically staged plan, replete with media strategies and careful allocation of duties to different CP departments. The company quickly adopted the plan and added an extra $100,000 to its public relations budget. In “Phase One,” the company announced a readers’ ballot that allowed customers and potential customers, through newspaper ads, to cast a vote for the midi or the mini.70 Of course, the actual vote was carefully monitored by CP. When a midway count revealed that the mini had only 30 percent of the vote, an alarmist press release by CP nudged the wider public into casting a “no midi” ballot. CP also used memorable responses and individuals to secure national press coverage for the vote. When a male economics professor from the University of British Columbia wagered the mini would win in a landslide, the company used his claim that he would “eat a jet” if he was wrong to get headlines in many newspapers.71 “Phase Two” involved “fanning the flames”72 by swinging the press to CP’s view, and “Phase Three” required resolution of the controversy by showcasing a new non-uniform, since the outcome of the vote was predetermined anyway. This would coincide with promotion of the Executive Jet program. While designating the issue an actual “tempest in a teapot,” the public relations experts reminded CP that they could exploit the explicitly “sexual” overtones of the debate to great effect for some “fun” and, of course, to generate future profit.73
The plan was immensely successful. Perhaps indicating how little work the press liked to do on its own, newspapers completely bought into CP’s media campaign, repeating verbatim the lines fed to them by the airline. They also published pictures provided by CP, including one of a petite young female employee dressed in short, pleated skirt pinning a “no midi” button on a robust, suited business man towering above her, a scene reminiscent of a “sexy school girl” fantasy.74 A few media commentators, of course, realized that this was a manufactured publicity “gold mine” for CP, and they critically urged the airline to concentrate on more important service issues.75 The majority of journalists, however, mimicked the language and images offered by CP; in 1970, the mainstream press still purveyed highly simplistic and often sexist coverage of women’s issues.76 The company’s press releases included selected choice quotes from customer letters, which the press lapped up and reproduced: it claimed one of the anti-midi ballots said that the midi “reminded me of my grandmother and she is dead.”77 Another often-repeated customer comment referred to “flying frumps” who were treated with unabashed male hostility: “I flew with my grandmother as a child,” one businessman stated. “Why do I have to continue now that I am a lecherous old man?”78
After the pro-mini vote was announced, a cross-country tour was planned with military precision. Press kits were prepared, phone calls made, and media interviews and photo shoots arranged ahead of time. The public relations firm laid out the process: have a reception for the press first, display the uniform at a press luncheon, introduce “real live” stewardesses wearing it, and so on. The press ate it up, sending reporters ranging from those covering the women’s page to front-line news reporters. The CP public relations department then did a self-assessment following each event in terms of how it was photographed, edited, and presented, as well as the level of visibility on either local or national television.
Using “real live” FAs to legitimize the anti-midi press campaign was critically important. CP stewardesses were used to model and speak about the switch back to a shorter skirt, thus reinforcing the notion that FAs wanted the change. This was an integral part of the suggested public relations plan, though HDB privately made it clear that FA views did not matter. When the midis were still being worn, CP claimed their limited acceptance was due to FAs’ ability to “undo the buttons” on the skirt, exhibiting their legs, and when the mini triumphed, the publicity department staged a photo of an FA cutting off her midi with scissors to make a mini—and display her legs prominently. The message was that women wanted not just to serve but to be ogled. The company chose stewardesses for this job who were not just willing to participate but also “photogenic, especially mini and other factors”—that is, they had nice legs.79 CP would have happily used models, but they worried this might be exposed as manipulative, and CALFAA would protest, so the company simply chose their own employees carefully. If they needed a few more models along the way, they surmised they could legitimately find some “local [CP ground] personnel” for “decorative background” who would fit the beauty bill.80 In any case, those on the press junket reported that “the [FA] girls handled it very well.”81 No doubt, for the select few FAs chosen, this was a compliment and validation, due precisely to the kind of recruitment, socialization, and training of FAs discussed earlier. It also involved paid time off from a usually hectic work schedule, meeting new people, and presentation as an ideal—and beautiful—employee.
What was obscured was the full range of FA views. Only a few newspaper reports reminded readers that the FAs had indicated their slight preference for the midi.82 Some FAs expressed concerns behind the scenes, couched in less than militant language. Buried in company documents was one letter from the male director of FAs to his superiors, expressing FA unhappiness with the public relations campaign. He explained that FAs had “worked extremely hard to cope with the requirements of the executive jet campaign,” but the “thigh high” slogan CP used was not to their liking; indeed, they found it “offensive and they were receiving undesirable comments from passengers as a result.”83 The FA response, however muted, demonstrates how women’s aesthetic and emotional labor intertwine: management wanted FAs to appear sexy and attractive but to not complain about unwanted comments and gestures, requiring them to suppress any feelings of discomfort.
The manager who represented the FAs was willing to speak up, but the public relations men made it clear they were not concerned with appeasing employee concerns. The public relations group existed in a masculine corporate culture that identified closely with the perks of the executive program; it represented their sexual desires and aspirations, too. During the debate, they circulated among themselves a press clipping about the Busenvogel, or “bosom birds”—flights initiated in Germany in which girls in see-through tops staffed “holiday” excursion flights alongside FAs. They noted the instant popularity of the bosom bird flights and how their “thigh in the sky” paled in comparison, offering barely anything to male “aisle oglers.” “Sorry chaps, No busenvogels in our ballot box,” they lamented.84
Nor was it just male executives who did not “see” the issue as one of equality or dignity. During the cross-country tour, CP arranged for an old midi costume to be deposited in the National Museum as a symbolic relic of the past. Perhaps hungry for any publicity, William Taylor, the head of the museum, and historian Jean Usher participated in the little performance piece put on for television cameras: a “strip tease” in which the midi was removed to show the new mini underneath. The idea had been concocted by a CP public relations person who was congratulated by his manager for creative thinking. The public relations men did have a suspicion there would be opposition to the strip tease, but “so far no outraged calls from little old ladies or women’s lib,” they joked.85 For them, feminist demands that women not be sexually objectified were simply a new form of prudery.
CP did well on the “thigh in the sky” campaign, garnering a significant amount of publicity for their Executive Jet program.86 It was a clear win for the employer, though they did not have to contend with organized opposition from CP FAs or their union. The midi controversy emerged at a transition point in terms of the political economy context and shifts in gender ideologies. Both are critical to understanding the body as a site of capitalist regulation and the expropriation of value but also the contradictory responses of women workers to gender, sexuality, and class differentiation in their embodied labor. Business’s perceived needs framed the controversy, as the economic pressure on CP to secure more lucrative transcontinental passengers led to the creation of the Executive Jet program. Stewardess ogling was a taken-for-granted part of the lure of business fares, and a well-established public relations industry was adept at suggesting how to use sex to sell. Capital had long integrated heterosexual notions of desire into advertising in particular and its accumulation strategies more generally. Indeed, the linkages between appearance, advertising, and profit-making remain central to the airline industry even if definitions of attractiveness alter: FAs at Air Canada’s budget airline, Rouge, which as a subsidiary can circumvent Air Canada’s union wages and rights, currently object both to these material constraints and to the supposedly perky, youthful (or just plain “silly”) uniforms and Disney customer training imposed on them by the airline.87
Just as airlines like CP believed they were facing new competitive challenges that had to be met with workplace changes in bodily performance, FAs confronted significant alterations to the family economy—working, as they did, much longer after marriage—as well as the introduction of feminist ideas into their union and the wider society. However, it is likely that the marriage bar, age discrimination, and pregnancy prohibitions, tested by the union through legal and legislative channels, were discerned to be more concrete and “doable” challenges than taking on the whole image of the job—though ultimately both issues spoke to congruent ideologies of beauty and femininity. Still, FAs’ public quiescence in the face of a highly sexualized advertising campaign that clearly disturbed some women workers needs explanation.
Employing human resource strategies that ranged from flattery to guilt to discipline, airlines had for decades put immense effort into reproducing their ideal female labor force, which incorporated a tightly bound combination of aesthetic and emotional labor. At CP, the resilient purser-versus-stewardess divisions created a legacy of gendered job classification and images, and the company’s well-honed recruitment, socialization, and discipline practices went some way toward creating a female workforce that accepted the company’s long-standing power to dress its employees. The agency of workers is also important, however. Some CP FAs did not want to abandon the historic association of their work with international hobnobbing, well-appointed femininity, and “glamour.” Dress and appearance, as feminist scholars have shown, are tied to workplace identities in contradictory ways that may reinforce employer authority but also enhance women’s sense of pride and power.88 Women’s embodied labor involved the performance of femininity coincident with the dominant gender ideals, which in turn provided some workers with a sense of pleasure as they rehearsed dominant notions of status, desire, and beauty on the job.
Embracing a glamorous image, however, did not mean they appreciated marketing that presented them as sexually available playthings. Moreover, CP FAs also wanted recognition for their stressful lives and arduous labor. In oral histories, they stress the long hours in constricted spaces, nowhere to sit or nap, washing vomit out of peoples’ hair, coping with distraught flyers, walking in uncomfortable high heels, and especially the “degrading” stress of weigh-ins.89 One CP stewardess recalled her growing irritation at this time with a manager who “saw us as just a bunch of fuzzy headed sexy little broads that he could do whatever he wanted with.”90 Their recollections reveal the discomforting disjuncture they increasingly identified between the airline image of femininity and their own definitions of femininity. As CALFAA became a more assertive union and feminist ideas took hold, women’s ambivalence about the sexy stewardess image turned into public demands for a new definition of dignified work.
Within a year, other struggles in the Canadian industry over FA dress met with very different outcomes. In 1971, Pacific Western Airlines FAs, who had a more contentious labor relations history with that airline, challenged the company’s requirement that they don “red bloomers” and short skirts as part of a Calgary Stampede cowboy theme, claiming the sexy costume encouraged male “groping” and affronted their dignity. At Air Canada, FAs swiftly kiboshed the company’s plans for dancing girls—really attractive “hostesses”—on the new jumbo jets.91 In these cases, FAs used union grievances, informal resistance, and publicity in order to refuse a sexualized image.92 While CALFAA managed to secure some control over the public message in the red bloomer case, CP astutely cornered the midi controversy with its own public relations strategy, assuming the upper hand of messaging. This, along with a lazy, sexist press corps, was critical to their success.
The “Busenvogel boys” at CP may have won the midi round, but in the long run, FAs became more assertive about appearance issues, and business had to adapt to a new image of working women.93 In 1979, a CP press release about their new FA uniform quoted their Canadian designer, Hugh Garber: he noted that another airline’s recent mini had been a “sexist” choice, since it was geared towards male passengers and did not complement the bodies of many of the women forced to wear it. Had CP completely forgotten its own promotion of the mini? By the mid-1980s, Canadian airlines had become more sensitive to charges that they exploited the sexuality of their FAs, lest they face consumer boycotts. Capital can and will modify its marketing and promotion to fit emerging gender ideologies; it is astutely accommodationist in this regard, always looking to its own robust survival.94 Executive class is no longer marketed as a masculine preserve for Playboy readers but rather for the elite 1 percent of all genders, perhaps an apt comment on our times. Capital’s right to dress its female workers was not entirely abandoned in the face of feminist critiques; the language and format of employer regulations were simply modified, and FAs were increasingly encouraged to monitor their own appearance in a contracting job market. Nevertheless, one would no longer see men’s lecherous right to ogle celebrated with quite the same abandon as it was in the 1970 midi controversy.
Though the term flight attendant has since replaced stewardess, we use stewardess when referring to sources from the period that likewise used that term.
“Guys! Look for More Thigh in the Sky!,” Montreal Gazette, December 9, 1970.
Contrary to some claims made for the “new” history of capitalism, the taking into account of capital, political economy, and market relations has long been integral to labor history, as previous scholarship on the feminization of occupations, paternalism and welfare capitalism, and deskilling and work processes—to cite only a few examples—demonstrates. See, for example, Benson, Counter Cultures; Davies, A Woman’s Place Is at the Typewriter; Scranton, Proprietary Capitalism; Zahavi, Workers, Managers, and Welfare Capitalism; Tone, Business of Benevolence; Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital; and Wardell, Steiger, and Meiksins, Rethinking the Labor Process.
On the expulsion of the working body from critical theory, see Wolkowitz, Bodies at Work; Eagleton, “It Is Not Quite True That I Have a Body,” 8; and Ebert, “Ludic Feminism, the Body, Performance, and Labor.” Canadian women’s histories of the body have ignored labor and historical materialism; see, for example, Gentile and Nicholas, Contesting Bodies and Nation in Canadian History.
Barry, Femininity in Flight; Vantoch, The Jet Sex; Boris, “Desirable Dress”; Cobble, “‘Spontaneous Loss of Enthusiasm’”; Nielsen, From Sky Girl to Flight Attendant; Yano, Airborne Dreams; Kane with Chandler, Sex Objects in the Sky; Tiemeyer, Plane Queer.
Classics on the body and workplace organization include Acker, “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies”; Pringle, Secretaries Talk; Leidner, Fast Food, Fast Talk; and Lan, “Working in a Neon Cage.” Examples of research on FAs include Tyler and Hancock, “Flight Attendants and the Management of Gendered ‘Organizational Bodies’”; Tyler and Taylor, “Exchange of Aesthetics”; Taylor and Tyler, “Emotional Labour and Sexual Difference in the Airline Industry”; and Tyler and Taylor, “Juggling Justice and Care.”
“Stewards Graduate at Winnipeg” and “Transatlantic Passenger Service,” clippings, 1947, box 1, Houseman Collection on Flight Attendant History (hereafter Houseman), Canadian Aviation Museum (hereafter CAM). All subsequent references are to box 1. There are no file numbers in the box.
Tiemeyer, Plane Queer, chap. 3.
CP hired stewardesses from Australia and Hong Kong, including Chinese women. This became a contentious contract issue, not, seemingly, for ethnic or racial reasons but due to the union’s concern with different wage rates and seniority issues on these routes.
“Applications for Certification under the Wartime Labour Relations Regulations,” Labour Gazette 47, no. 6 (June 1947): 794, 795; 47, no. 12 (December 1947): 1784; 48, no. 2 (March 1948): 173; 48, no. 6 (July 1948): 735; 48, no. 8 (September 1948): 982.
Although beyond the scope of this article, the conflict over men’s place in the Canadian union was different from the legal issues in the United States, particularly the Diaz v. Pan Am case described in Tiemeyer, Plane Queer.
For this and other different union struggles in the United States, see Barry, Femininity in Flight, esp. chaps. 3 and 5. In the United States, stewardesses in the Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Association (ALSSA) were in a partnership with the Air Line Pilots Association but increasingly sought autonomy and their own charter from the AFL. The “union autonomy” quote appears on page 72. Some FAs were also in the Transport Workers Union, which eventually took on some ALSSA members. At that point, as Barry puts it, “one subordinate union became two subordinate unions” (90). In contrast, from its certification in 1948, CALFAA reigned supreme in Canada.
The legal avenues for redress in Canada (grievances, the human rights machinery) differed from those in the United States, where Title VII and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were involved. Some general issues of contention, such as age and maternity restrictions, were similar. On the latter, see Sangster, “Debating Maternity Rights.”
On the US organization Stewardesses for Women’s Rights, see Barry, Femininity in Flight. Note that the in-house history of CALFAA claims that the “U.S. ‘fly me’ type of sexist advertising was never adopted in Canada,” presumably due in part to a different competitive climate. Newby, Sky’s the Limit, 58.
“Submission to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada by the Canadian Air Line Flight Attendants Association,” September 1968, vol. 18, file 441, Royal Commission on the Status of Women fonds, RG 33–89, Library and Archives Canada.
“Sky’s the Limit,” recruitment pamphlet, n.d., Houseman, CAM.
Letter from TransAir Limited to potential hire, 1958, the Air Canada component of the Canadian Union of Public Employees papers (hereafter CUPE papers). CALFAA integrated into CUPE in 1986. The CUPE papers are held by the union and consist of several boxes of archival materials. Only some of the boxes are numbered, so we have not cited particular box numbers.
Senka Dukovich (former FA and union activist), interview by authors, January 28, 2014.
“Jean Wheatley Elected Vice-President,” newspaper clipping, August 1963, CUPE papers.
On “dispositions” and debts to Pierre Bourdieu, see Witz, Warhurst, and Nickson, “Labour of Aesthetics and the Aesthetics of Organization,” 36; and Warhurst et al., “Aesthetic Labour in Interactive Service Work.”
Nickson and Korczynski, “Editorial.” On the continued importance of the concept of emotional labor, see Williams, “Sky Service.”
“Super Women Required,” clipping, 1939, Houseman, CAM.
“Glamour Aloft,” clipping from the Sun (Vancouver), May 4, 1940, Houseman, CAM; clipping, Marketing, 1970, box 10, file 2.2.2 (182), Canadian Pacific fonds (hereafter CP fonds), Public Relations, CAM.
Many social scientists stress the “newness” of aesthetic labor. Hancock and Tyler, “Un/doing Gender and the Aesthetics of Organizational Performance.”
Recruitment Photos, n.d., Houseman, CAM.
Interview with Ken Dakin, October 9, 1984, CUPE papers. Interviews (largely with FAs) were done for an in-house history of CALFAA. Newby, Sky’s the Limit. Informal transcripts were left in the archives and were used for this study.
Photo file, Houseman, CAM.
Notes from interview with Millie Power, September 22, 1984, CUPE papers.
Interview with Donna Anderson and Roberta Stier, October 24, 1984, CUPE papers.
Interview with Anderson and Stier, October 24, 1984, CUPE papers.
Interview with Shirley White and Evelyn Curran, October 13, 1984, CUPE papers. For a similar discussion of the views of Japanese American FAs, see Yano, Airborne Dreams.
Letter from Lizabeth W. Gardner to N. Jill Newby, July 9, 1984, CUPE papers.
Letter from CALFAA to members, n.d., CALFAA Miscellaneous Correspondence, 1948–1960, CUPE papers.
Letter from Smith et al. to Mr. Gray, August 4, 1980, box 1, file 2.265.2, J. K. Dakin Executive VP Personal File, CP fonds, CAM.
Seminar with Director of Passenger Service, February 21, 1967, box 4, file 2.2.2., Corporate Strategy and Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM.
While social science literature refers to this process as “co-optation” (see Hancock and Tyler, “Un/doing Gender and the Aesthetics of Organizational Performance,” 516), we use “socialization.” For an older but still relevant discussion of how patterns of gendered occupational segregation are shaped by “economic, political and social forces operative at the historical moment when the labor process crystallizes,” see Milkman, Gender at Work, 157.
Newspapers are filled with such concerns. See, for example, “Airline Stocks Termed Unattractive to Investor,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), October 31, 1970; “CP Air Pessimistic about ’70 Profit Results, Asserts Investment Return Won’t Be Adequate,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 17, 1970; and Rolfe, “Air Rate Rises May Be Result of Cost Squeeze.”
CP assistant vice president Kenneth Dakin stated, “Our main strategy in 1970 was to persuade businessmen to use our domestic services, and then to impress them so much that they would favor us on international flights.” “CP Air Puts Lid on Hirings,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 18, 1970.
Executive Jet Campaign, advertisements, n.d., box 10, file 2.2.2., Corporate Affairs, CP fonds, CAM.
CP Press Releases, September 11, 1970, box 10, file 184, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM.
“Village Makes Midi Illegal,” Vancouver Sun, October 3, 1970.
“Mini-skirt Militants Protest Paper’s Policy,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 18, 1970.
A recent exception is Pan, “Pink Collar.”
The strategy of HDB was one embraced by employers on the advice of public relations experts in earlier labor disputes as well. See Vivian and Maurin, Media of Mass Communication, 168–70. Founded in 1945, HDB worked for other US corporations but no major US airlines. “John Hoefer Maintains a Strong Sense of Integrity in a Competitive Industry,” Daily Independent Journal, June 22, 1974.
“Hoefer, Dietrich and Brown, Inc. Position Paper on CP Air ‘Midi’ Controversy,” box 10, file 185, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM (hereafter cited in the text as HDB Paper), 2.
See, for example, “Don’t Skirt the Issue. Vote,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), October 26, 1970.
“Announcing Freedom of Choice for Executive Jet Stewardesses,” clippings, box 10, file 181, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM. Professor David E. Bond did not win his wager in terms of the percentage of the vote but was ceremoniously presented with a cake in the form of a jet to eat.
HDB paper, box 10, file 185, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM, 7.
Ibid., 7, 8.
“Mini Mite,” Port Alberni Valley Times, November 13, 1970, box 10, file 180, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM. CP provided the photo, and it was reproduced in many newspapers.
“CP Air Reaps Gold Mine from Midi Row,” Kitchener-Waterloo Record, November 25, 1970, box 10, file 180, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM; “Minis or Service?” Halifax Mail Star, November 9, 1970. The latter decried the “ogling” of stewardesses, a rare response.
Wachtel, Update on Feminist Periodicals; Dow, Watching Women’s Liberation, 1970.
“Midi Reminds Him of Granny—and She Is Dead,” Ottawa Journal, November 10, 1970, box 10, file 180, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM.
Elaine Seskevich, “Around the Town: Shrouded Look for Stewardesses Causes Uproar,” Calgary Herald, October 23, 1970, box 10, file 180, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM.
R. A. Keith to Mike Dukelow, January 27, 1971, internal correspondence, box 10, file 185, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM.
Steve Collier to R. A. Keith et al., February 8, 1971, telegram, box 10, file 185, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM.
J. B. Holand to Robert Rice, February 3, 1971, internal correspondence, box 10, file 185, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM.
“Airline Doesn’t Count Vote of Stewardesses,” Winnipeg Free Press, December 9, 1970.
G. E. Manning to R. A. Keith, December 18, 1970, internal correspondence, box 10, file 184, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM.
Memo to Jack Wasserman, October 23, 1970, and to R. A. Keith and others, October 26, 1970, box 10, file 185, CP fonds, CAM. For a contemporary discussion of masculine entitlement in the advertising industry, see Gregory, “Inside the Locker Room,” 323–47.
Memo from R. A. Keith to Mr. Gray, February 19, 1971, box 10, file 185, Public Relations, CP fonds, CAM.
The Financial Post gave the campaign extensive coverage, describing it as an “‘honest goof’” that CP turned into “one of the greatest marketing coups.” Schreiner, “Veni, Vidi, Vici.”
Rouge FAs must even pay for part of their Disney training in “servility.” Mallick, “Air Canada’s ‘Rouge’ Leisure Airline is Tough on Staff.”
Interview with Lorraine Gore, n.d., CUPE papers.
Interview with Beverly Biborosch Cotnam, 1984, CUPE papers.
There was an interesting difference between the case of the Stampede costume and the Executive Jet program: the social class of the customer. FAs who flew on Pacific Western’s northern routes claimed the bloomer costume encouraged loggers and such men isolated in the bush to grab them, while the CP program was directed at businessmen. There may have been a perceived difference in likelihood of sexual harassment, despite the lack of evidence of any real difference.
By the 1980s, CP realized the profit potential of the female business traveler and put a staff member in charge of securing their business. “Flying Females, Big Business,” n.d., box 4, file 53, CP fonds, CAM.
A similar situation occurred with gay and lesbian job rights in the United States, which some airlines accommodated with an eye to an important customer market. See Murphy, “United Airlines is for Lovers?,” 100–112.