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Friday essay: smile and stay thin – life as a 60s air hostess

June 3, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Max White, Qantas flight steward, 1947 to 1980

In 1958, Qantas began employing Japanese flight hostesses to work on the “Cherry Blossom” route to Japan. Qantas’s Marj de Tracy had flown to Japan to select, from 150 applicants, Yoshiko Watanabe, Teruko Oshima and Kazuko Otsu. Publicity photos of the new recruits, all in their early twenties, showed them arriving in Sydney wearing full kimonos, similar to the ones they would wear on the flights to Tokyo.

Teri Teramoto was selected to fly on the Japan route in 1964. She started training with two other young Japanese women, and the stress of the new environment meant that none of them slept properly. Each morning they left on the bus for training school without breakfast, instead each snacking on their own packet of Arnott’s Scotch Finger biscuits.

Snacking on biscuits was not a good idea but it was difficult to find Japanese food in Sydney. With a change of diet they all put on weight, and were put on the scales and reprimanded in front of the other trainees.

Exotic cosmopolitanism: the Qantas Japanese flight hostess (in the background) c. 1959.

After training they were sent one-by-one with a check hostess on a test flight to Hong Kong. Only after completing a three-month probation period were they taken by Qantas’s Tokyo manager to a shop in Ginza to be fitted for a kimono. They would board the plane in the “Jungle Green” uniform, and after take-off, go to the toilet and, in less than five minutes, change into the traditional kimono. Qantas continued to recruit Japanese-born flight hostesses into the 1980s but in the 1970s they stopped wearing the kimono, partly due to expense but also safety issues.

Other major international airlines introduced Asian women on their flights, and they too would wear traditional forms of dress as well as the standard uniform. In 1961 Cathay Pacific had two flights a week between Hong Kong and Sydney. It proclaimed the use of British pilots who “fly you efficiently” while the “demure Oriental hostesses pamper you charmingly”.

Other airlines attempted to exoticise their air hostesses. On board Ansett-ANA’s new Lockheed Electras, hostesses wore gold lamé dresses for the Golden Supper Club Service on the last flight out of Melbourne to Sydney at 10pm. The dresses only came in three sizes; if the size didn’t fit safety pins were used. The rationale behind the service was that it would attract businessmen who “could relax 4 miles high” while “attentive hostesses” served meals.

In 1967, BOAC introduced a paper mini dress covered with a print of a sun and large flowers to be worn on the Caribbean and Bermuda flights. Cut, literally, to whichever length wanted, the dress was worn with a flower in the hair (usually a fresh orchid), and white gloves and bright green slip-on shoes. The dresses weren’t practical as they tore easily and became transparent and disintegrated when wet.

They were meant to be fireproof, which was just as well as some passengers would try and stub their cigarettes into the fabric. After the plane had emptied, the hostesses would put on the standard uniform and throw away the short-lived paper dress.

The discipline of appearance

In 1959 Qantas only had 85 flight hostesses, but was receiving 800 applications a year. With the introduction of the round-the-world service and the new Boeing 707 services, advertisements were placed in the major daily newspapers for new flight hostess positions. In Melbourne the interviews would be held at Qantas House, over a period of three days. Applicants were expected to have a “pleasant personality and attractive appearance” and undergo three interviews before being selected into the training school.

June Dally-Watkins, a well-known Australian model, had opened a school for deportment in Sydney in 1950 and Qantas employed her to teach deportment to its trainees. Pat Woodley, who had been Miss New South Wales in 1951, also ran a modelling and deportment school in Phillip Street, Sydney, which would-be air hostesses attended. Woodley advertised her school on the side of buses with the claim, “I’ll make any girl pretty”.

Pat (Willbrandt) Gregory-Quilter, who started with Qantas in 1957, recalls that for her second interview she had to walk up and down the interview room before the panel of four, remove and put on her gloves and make a PA announcement.

When she started the job, hostesses were wearing a white summer dress and she would hang her six spare uniforms on the back of the toilet door in the plane to avoid them getting crushed. More than once, an inebriated passenger urinated over the uniform.

Gregory-Quilter worked with Qantas until 1961, then left to marry, and when the marriage failed came back in 1969 as trainer for 14 years. She was interested in achieving a more individualised look and so the Qantas training school created its own hair and make-up salon. Still the strict standards meant that the flight hostesses did tend to look very similar. The other reason for this was that wigs were commonplace at the time. They too had to be approved; they had to look natural.

Maureene Martin joined Qantas in 1964 aged 22 and she recalls one of her colleagues calling Gregory-Quilter “Mrs Grooming Looming”, as she would appear from her office and ask them to put some more lipstick on, or something along those lines.

The high price of gaining weight

The Qantas Flight Hostess Manual was almost 260 pages, and Bev Maunsell, who had previously worked at Ansett-ANA for two years, remembers sitting in the Qantas training school thinking that they took things very seriously. As well as matters such as the placement of parsley on plates, the flight hostesses would be instructed about what to do during stopovers or between flights. They were advised to set aside one night each week to delve into their personal appearance. The order of activities suggested were:

  1. Relaxing bath.
  2. Finger and toenails.
  3. Hair – combed and brush scrubbed clean.
  4. Skin care.
  5. Superfluous hair removed.
  6. Odd jobs – mending etc.
  7. At least eight hours restful sleep with plenty of fresh air.

Most were happy to adhere to the checks and the strict standards knowing that if they didn’t they could be grounded and therefore lose their pay.

Janette (Freeman) Davie AM began with Qantas in 1967. She had to stay in training school for a bit longer as she had pimples and had to wait for her skin to “settle” before she could fly.

When she was finally allowed to fly she would have her skin checked on each return flight. Eventually she was sent to a skin specialist and put on the pill, which normally meant weight gain.

The issue of the hostesses’ weight was a concern as they were rostered off if they put on too much. This would have dire financial consequences, as Davie explains:

We’d all moved from interstate. We all had to pay a bond to live in an apartment and we had no money left over once you paid the bond and your rent every week and fed yourself. So if someone said come back when you’ve lost the weight, it might take you three or four weeks to lose that half a stone and there was no salary during that period.

It is easy to trace discrimination back to the airlines and their individual policies but there was also a sense that the air hostesses themselves endorsed the “look” required to be employed with many of them thinking that you shouldn’t fly when “you’re too fat or too old”.

For most airlines the criteria to join were almost the same. While the height over the years had increased, the weight had remained much the same (usually a maximum of about 9 stone 7lb, but often described as proportionate to height) and it was still necessary to have completed a first-aid course. Glasses or contact lenses couldn’t be worn.

The work of glamour

While few would dispute the sheer hard work of the job there was also the hard work of being highly groomed and attractive; what might be called the work of glamour. No doubt as a recognition of the standards that Qantas achieved with their flight hostesses, Pat Gregory-Quilter was used as a judge for beach girl competitions and the Miss Australia contest.

With most airlines offering similar services on often identical planes, the air hostesses became the point of difference. In the 1960s there was a trend for representing a sort of authenticity in ads. It was for this reason that in September 1967, Susan ( Jones) Foster became the face of Ansett-ANA appearing in an advertising campaign pitched firmly against their competition – TAA. The slogan was “How can both Airlines be the Same? We’ve got Susan Jones”.

Foster was 22 years old. Even though she was comfortable on board chatting to the passengers, she was very shy. Without any preparation she was sent on a promotional tour of Australia doing radio and television interviews. Festival records also produced a Susan Jones EP record to be handed out on flights. The song, about a young woman who had “escaped” a small town to join the airline, was sung by the young, then unknown Johnny Farnham.

That November, the airline ran a new advertisement, “Whoever you are, please stop sending our Miss Jones roses”, citing that they were losing “too many good hostesses to matrimony as it is”.

By the end of the year Foster had become engaged. When the time came for her to leave Ansett-ANA, the airline placed a full-page advertisement in every major paper with a photograph of her in a wedding dress and veil, with the simple caption, “I do”.

The idea that young, attractive and single women should represent an airline continued into the 1970s. Over at Qantas, the staff magazine announced it would run a series of photographs of the “fly-birds”. After one flight hostess appeared in her bikini alongside the caption, “a delightful decoration for any swimming pool”, it seems there were no further images in the series.

Indigenous Air Hostesses

After the 1967 referendum, where over 90 per cent of people voted to have Indigenous Australians included in the census, there were attempts to actively promote opportunities for Indigenous Australians. In June 1968, as part of a “Your Career” section in Dawn: A Magazine for the Aboriginal People of New South Wales, the Department of Labour and Industry had forwarded information about the duties and qualifications necessary to be an air hostess.

It mentioned that the “work is often tiring, and the hostess must be of first-class health. She must speak fluently and clearly and have good eyesight, a pleasing appearance and personality and an ability to get along well with people”. The question of health was becoming an issue. An article from London mentioned that many hostesses were giving up their jobs because their health was suffering from the demands of the job and medical conditions associated with flying.

Sue Bryant became the first Indigenous Australian air hostess when she started working for Ansett Airlines in 1970. Bryant had grown up in the inner west of Sydney, under the flight path, and she would often gaze out of the classroom window, thinking she would like to be an air hostess.

Bryant’s first uniform was a white mini dress worn with a thin tan belt and a matching pillbox hat. By the time she left in 1973, the uniform was orange hotpants worn with a wraparound maxi skirt and brown boots. Working for Ansett Airlines of New South Wales meant Bryant flew to many of the outback towns: Dubbo, Bourke, Brewarrina and on to Charleville in Queensland. With large Indigenous populations in the towns it may have been advantageous to have Bryant on these routes but she didn’t think so, as there weren’t that many Indigenous passengers at that time.

In 1971, Bryant appeared in Roderick Hulsbergen’s book The Aborigine Today wearing her uniform, representing a modern young woman engaged in life at work.

It was not until the end of the decade, that TAA employed three indigenous air hostesses.

The 1960s, going into the 1970s, were a very progressive period for Australia. The postwar baby boomers were coming of age, and Australia was still an industrial country with an expanding economy. Unions were strong, and the progressive government of Gough Whitlam was elected. Support for Aboriginal Australians was on the rise, along with the inclusive policy of multiculturalism.

Airline hostesses were part of the “boomer” demographic, and some were no doubt influenced by the atmosphere of sexual liberation and second-wave feminism. But for the most part they were professionally focused, and that suppressed any sense that sexy ad campaigns were exploitative.

Still, what was sustaining for most of these young women was the esprit de corps that had started to gel with unionisation.

In 1970, Qantas celebrated its 50th anniversary. A new campaign was started with an advertisement featuring a beaming flight hostess, alongside the slogan, The Friendliness of the Long Distance Australian. Now, even the smile was a matter for competitive international marketing:

Every airline has smiling hostesses. But nobody has that special open-hearted Australian smile except Qantas.

What Qantas failed to notice was that their workforce of 230 flight hostesses had stopped smiling. On the 1st July 1970, the women started a seven-day strike over improved salaries and conditions.

This is an edited extract from Prudence Black’s Smile, Particularly in Bad Weather: The Era of the Australian Airline Hostess, published by UWAP.

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