From Pillbox Hat to Bullet Bra: The Anatomy of a Pan Am Stewardess Uniform

TV Guide

Christina Ricci | Photo Credits: Bob D'Amico/ABC

For Pan Am star Christina Ricci, wearing the airline's iconic '60s flight attendant uniforms not only make her look the part, but also feel the part. And it all begins with squeezing into the historically accurate underwear.

"We have these undergarments that we wear, a girdle and a longline bra," Ricci told reporters in September. "The girdle keeps you from being able to do anything boyish like run or jump or take any large flights of stairs. The longline is a bra attached to a mini-corset so it basically makes you stand up really, really straight. ... You have to walk like a lady at all times, so immediately you're just put into this mindset of 'I'm a lady. I sit a certain way. I walk a certain way.'"

PHOTOS: Meet your Pan Am flight crew

In Sunday's episode "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" (10/9c on ABC), the crew transports journalists to Berlin to cover President Kennedy's speech. No one is more excited than Maggie (Ricci), who had campaigned for him and is determined to meet him in person. For Pan Am costume designer Ane Crabtree, the energy and excitement during that era of possibilities (a fledgling NASA, young and charismatic JFK) is reflected in its youth, such as Maggie, and their fashions. "Pan Am was very hip and cool and of the times," Crabtree tells TVGuide.com.  "They changed with what was happening in fashion."

Check out Crabtree's insights into those tunis blue uniforms, from the tops of their carefully constructed hats, down past the gossamer thin stockings and to the very sensible, not-too-pointy shoes.

What sort of research was involved in recreating these uniforms?
Ane Crabtree:
We're so lucky because Nancy Ganis, who is our executive producer and who created this story, was a Pan Am stewardess. We had access to an original uniform [and] every inch was measured and photographed. ... Also, I have maybe every book ever made on the history of airline uniforms, uniforms in general and on airline stewardesses.  Finally, we looked at old footage, old documentaries on the airline industry that we can all get online now.

Were the original, real-life Pan Am uniforms designed to be practical versus good-looking? Did they want them easy to clean?
Crabtree:
It's all of those things. Any uniform, whether it's military or a flight attendant, a pilot uniform, a janitor's uniform, they had to be practical. For these busy people they created these uniforms that would stand the test of long hours. They would look crisp, and beautiful, and feminine on these crazy long flights. And easy to clean, yes.

VIDEO: Former Pan Am stewardess Sheila Riley on being in Berlin during JFK's speech

Were they designed to project a certain image?
Crabtree:
They were looking to project an image of the perfect ladylike representative of Pan Am: chic, quiet, elegant. That bestows confidence on Pan Am patrons, because, don't forget, not a ton of people had been flying for very long [in 1963]. So, there was a heck of a lot more of in-flight worry perhaps.

I love the little hats. Can you tell me about those?
Crabtree:
In '63, you weren't allowed to have your hat too far on back of your head, and the hairstyle had to go with that. It was actually supposed to cross the hairline, sort of two fingers above the eyebrow was a perfect place for it to land. That was until the uniform changed in '65 where it sat further back like Jackie O. 

What kind of time goes into constructing one the hats? They look very polished.
Crabtree:
They're such works of art.  The actors are so freaked out by the hat. I'm talking guys and girls are like, "Oh please, please let me try on the hat!" They are so precise and built in the old style of millinery standards. There is one guy in L.A. who makes them. There are tiny, tiny trapunto stitching, rows and rows that I hope you'll be able to see on camera, that form this beautiful shape. The fabric has to be dyed this very, very specific Pan Am tunis blue because it doesn't exist anywhere.  And the buttons have to be hand-cast. Starting with Episode 5, we have the very beautiful hatpin on the back of the stewardess cap that was fashioned after stewardess Sheila Riley's personal Pan Am pin she wore on the flight to Berlin.

Besides finding the right shade of blue, what else did you look for in the fabric for the uniforms?
Crabtree:
We followed the guideline of the original with a lightweight twill so that it could be versatile for weather and, also, comfortable for the actors. [It is] long-lasting for the incredibly harsh life of the show. [We're] shooting 12 to 18 hours a day and they're wearing them all day. We just needed a good fabric so that we wouldn't make our actors sick, really, with the weather changes.

Then there are those white accents — the blouse and gloves. Aren't they difficult to keep clean?
Crabtree:
The blouses are white pique and beautiful, but the fabric is such that it's almost sculptural and goes around the body in that way and doesn't wrinkle very much. The while gloves had to be cleaned and pressed, which is really important because having a million extras — not just the stewardesses — but a lot of folks in white gloves in street clothes, those gloves get so dirty. You can't even imagine the sweat, and makeup, and food. So, they had to be really cleaned, bleached out, all the time.

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Christina Ricci discussed the underwear's historical accuracy as well. How important was it to recreate these garments considering the audience doesn't get to see them?
Crabtree:
  [It's important] to build from the inside out for these actors because it's so psychological. They're very young kids. They were never around in the '60s. There is a different physicality from the '60s to now in how we hold ourselves. And the clothes just fit better [with these undergarments] believe it or not. It's not something that I would readily think of in 2011, but you know with this whole preponderance of Spanx, it makes things better.

The reason for the girdle was so that they didn't jiggle because it wasn't ladylike. The girdle just kept everything very, very close to the body and contained. And when you have a bullet bra on, which is a longline, you didn't want to be poking through your bra if it was cold if you know what I mean. So, those bras were thicker than what we have today. With those bullet bras, you have to stand straight or else you look silly and it ruins the line. 

In the pilot, Miss Havemayer (Veanne Cox) warns Colette (Karine Vanasse) against wearing stockings that are too dark. Why is that?
Crabtree:
Stockings were to be worn at all times. From one of those old manuals, I read this great quote, "A subdued, light color beautifies and gives a natural good look to the legs." So they didn't want too dark, which is what Miss Havemeyer says in the pilot, and they didn't want too light. They just wanted a subtle, beautiful color on the legs. A dark color wasn't desired because it's too fashion-y or too flashy, too tawdry. It's always sort of rounding back to the not being ladylike effect.

How many pairs of stockings do you go through on the show?
Crabtree:
We wear real stockings that don't have stretch. You know stretch would be so much easier, however, stretch will show up as shinier on camera and that wouldn't be true to the period. They need to be sheer, but because they're so sheer and so delicate, they rip. We go through two pairs of stockings per girl, per day.  It gets very expensive because they're delicate.  We're going up and down stairs a million times, doing all sorts of crazy things.  So, you need doubles because they'll shred when you are getting your shoes on.

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OK, so don't wear your hat far back, avoid dark or ripped stockings and never forget your girdle. What other uniform violations did the stewardesses have to avoid?
Crabtree:
The uniform jacket and skirt couldn't be too tight because that would be considered inelegant. It couldn't pull in the bra area.  Who would want that?  And it couldn't be too tight in the derrière because if it's too tight over the girdle, it shows and you don't want that either. Also, you couldn't have flashy jewelry. You needed a really simple watch and small earrings. The shoes had to be clean and polished. Very military, right?  Two to three inch heel, slender, not too pointed. Pointy shoes were in, but they didn't want the severe — what did they called them? — roach killers, which are the pointy ones. Finally, the wings had to be on the left lapel of the stewardess jacket.  When the jacket comes off it had to be on the blouse.

Overall, how are the actresses liking these costumes? Is there anyone who particular takes to the uniform?
Crabtree:
There's no complaints. They love the uniform, thank God.  They're made to measure on the girls [so] they are not uncomfortable. Each has their own pattern for everything: the hat, the bra, the suit jacket, the skirt. I think Karine looks naturally at ease in her uniform,  like she was made to be a stewardess, perhaps. 

What's the most popular item? Will there be any versions made for fans to purchase?
Crabtree:
The most popular item was, and probably still would be, the Pan Am bag because that was a giant thing even before the show began. Those are the calls I get the most: "Can you please hold one for me?  Can you find out where I can get one?"  I think that's going to be giant as it already is. But, also, I'm getting requests for guys saying, "Where can I get a uniform for my girlfriend?  I want her to get married in that and me in a pilot uniform."  I kid you not. I think it's going to be giant for Halloween, the whole uniform. Isn't that crazy?

Check out Ricci wearing her uniform in this promo for Sunday's "Ich Bin Ein Berliner":

Pan Am airs on Sundays at 10/9c on ABC.

What's your favorite part of the Pan Am stewardess uniform? Would you wear the uniform for Halloween? How about your wedding?

 


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