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Girdles with Garters
On Wednesday, September 2, 1964, I attended an airline graduation as one of the participants, along with 35 others. We were two classes merged together to receive our personalized silver wings. My class totaled 18, and I was the youngest. Just four days earlier at the United Airlines training center, I had turned 20.
As I look back, it is hard to comprehend the speed of time. It is amazing that it has been over 48 years since I entered my first jet plane, a Boeing 720, and flew non-stop from San Francisco to Chicago with five other young women.
We were lucky because we were heading to “Stew School.” We had been accepted into one of the most glamorous career fields that existed for women at that time. I was excited! I was experiencing my first jet flight, my first airline meal, and my first interaction with a real “stewardess.” OMG, I wish I could remember her name. I had a feeling that she felt we were so stupid and unsophisticated – unlike her – and I was. Mindset is everything, and her opinion of herself was extremely high. She taught me a lot on that flight, but mostly how not to be like her.
After we landed and entered O’Hare International Airport, I knew this was the beginning of my own “Yellow Brick Road.” I had already experienced San Francisco’s domestic terminal, but this airport was gigantic! I was now in the middle part of the United States – the farthest I had ever traveled from my home in Stockton, California. Prior to this, the furthest was a car trip to southern Oregon.
As we walked down the long concourse to the baggage claim area, I am sure my heart was pumping faster than normal, probably because I didn’t get much sleep the night before – or even days before – as I stayed out late having fun with my friends and boyfriend. I was tired and running on adrenalin.
While waiting for our bags to come down the chute, I checked my personal letter from United. This letter was filled with directions, and it told me which door to use to exit baggage claim and where to stand curbside while waiting for the gray United bus. Once it arrived, I thought this new adventure would start to wind down, but it only got better as more new hires made it to curbside, arriving on different flights from around the United States. These were the young ladies, who had been selected by United to become stewardesses, and United prided themselves on their “GIRL NEXT DOOR” image, and they liked to hire from every state. What that image actually was we were going to find out over the next five and a half weeks.
When the bus departed from O’Hare, excited and accelerated voices filled the space. This was not a group of shy young women. If we had been, we would not have been on that bus. Instead, conversations were overlapping, filled with high volume laughter.
It took a few minutes to leave the airport area, and once on the road, there were many turns and stoplights. The United complex is listed in Google as being only two miles from O’Hare International Airport, but it seemed like the bus ride took at least 15 minutes. We finally saw the GUARD at the gate of the United complex. As we entered the COMPOUND, we could see a nicely planned industrial park. The two buildings that stood out were the headquarters building and the 2-story training center. Surrounding these modern buildings were manicured lawns, trees and a beautiful man-made lake. I was impressed, but hey, I wasn’t even 20. What would I know? I was impressed I had made it as far as Chicago and had found the correct bus.
As we exited and gathered our bags, and entered the lobby of the training center, we were greeted by a woman whose title was the “House Mother.” Her job was to watch over us like a mother hen. She would be the one we talked with if we got sick, or wanted to leave training and go home, or for any other personal reasons. She was also the one that would be waiting in the lobby on the weekends making sure we made our curfew, which I believe was 11:00 p.m. Even though it initially seemed comforting to be greeted, there was no warm cozy feeling emanating from the building. As I looked around the lobby, I saw few furnishings and the flooring was industrial, high-gloss gray vinyl tile. With so much gray, it seemed cold and sterile. I was becoming aware that this was a very controlled and very structured program. We had just entered “Stew School;” we were now United’s “property.”
It’s complicated turning out a generic “girl next door” (GND) stewardess. It is no easy task, so to do it properly, there must be standardization. This requires very specific rules that must be followed without exception. That is why we had a training manual that was approximately two inches thick. Unfortunately, some of the people in the training center relied too much on that manual. These manual specialists took the printed word seriously and did not mind upsetting those being turned into the GNDs. After all, they knew it was needed, and the feeling of power and control over others was exhilarating. These few rule fanatics were strategically placed to make the operation work. But again, what did I know, I was still 19.
It was time to go up to our rooms and get settled in. We had Sunday to get familiar with our new environment, and our classes would begin on Monday morning.
Memories of “Stew School” are vague, so I consulted with one of my classmates, another who graduated a year later, and another who still lives in the Chicago area. Here is a collage of our memories along with information provided by the Flight Path Learning Center (an airline museum near LAX airport) which shared documents with me written by the United Airlines Historical Foundation. This included information on the 1960’s as well as a United brochure we received when we were recruited.
Our rooms were on the second floor dormitory-style and were quite large. Each room had its own bathroom. Four of us shared a room, so instantly I had three roommates for the next five and a half weeks. The two oldest– in their mid-20’s – were placed in a smaller room where they had more privacy. One had been a practicing nurse and was very attractive. None of us remember having a key to our rooms, so the upstairs must have been very secure. I remember that visitors and guests had to be met in the lobby.
When classes began on Monday, we wore business attire because the United info sheet stated that. In those days pants and jeans were a no-no. Jeans were for cowboys and cowgirls or for those who wanted to emulate “the Fonz” look on “Happy Days.”
On the first floor were the classrooms. Our info sheet told us the room number and time to meet our instructor. Her name was Sharon Ann and besides being a stewardess, she was also a nurse. She was 26 years old, and at the time I wondered why she was not married – she was certainly pretty enough. I mean, really, in those days that was almost an “old maid.” A couple years later when I was based in Miami, I found out our Sharon Ann had been sent off to Stew School to teach because United wanted to separate her from her pilot boyfriend, who she was living with. Those were the days we were not allowed to be married. (She later married her captain, had children, and eventually retired and went back to nursing.)
Even though I was naïve in many ways I had a keen sense of staying away from those who attracted the drama, and there was certainly plenty of that. Many of my classmates had previously had jobs and some had lived on their own, experiencing freedoms that were foreign to me. I on the other hand had just graduated from junior college, lived at home, and only worked part time. I needed to stay focused because I wanted to graduate.
It was fun, though, being around those with super animated personalities, especially those with strong southern accents. The one that stood out was a girl from Mississippi who missed her boyfriend. To relieve some of her anxiety she would make sounds like a rooster up and down the hall. This would make us all laugh. Interestingly, she graduated but only lasted a couple of months before deciding to go home and marry her boyfriend.
The first four weeks of our training focused on the airplanes in our fleet, the services, the location of supplies on the different aircraft, airport routes and codes (example, Portland was PDX), and passenger psychology which was the thread to public relations. We also learned about our “legalities” which had been negotiated and agreed to by the company and our union. These rules and regulations had their own section in our manual. We had a lot to learn about our rights.
A fun part of training was going into cabin mock-ups and playing out different scenarios of what could happen while working a trip. These scenarios were sometimes exaggerated situations with questions like, “What would you do if one of your passengers went into labor?” or “How would you handle a drunk who pulls his pants down in flight?” But often they were reasonable situations like what would you do if a passenger got sick from turbulence and wanted you to sit by him during landing. As these scenarios played out and the questions asked, they watched and listened to our responses and noted our comments.
In the mock up cabins we would also learned about our meal services and how they were to be done. Once again the manual had all the answers. To get an actual feel for the proper procedures, we would serve each other meals under the watchful eyes of our instructors.
When we were not attending classes, we were privy to a wonderful cafeteria which was full of tantalizing food. The assortment of desserts and fattening side dishes were abundant. In a way, it was like the Hansel and Gretel tale, but instead of trying to fatten us up for the kill, they just wanted to test our control. Our grade came every Monday when they weighed us. There were established weight and height limits outlined in the manual. We quickly learned that the manual was “the Bible.” The written words within covered every aspect of our profession.
Included in sculpting us was a beauty consultant who gave guidance on hair style, fashion, make-up, proper body carriage, good posture, and what they called “figure control.” By the time she was through with us, we were ready to compete in the Miss America pageant – like she actually had. The funny thing about all these beauty tips was that highlighted hair was not accepted. My hair had been highlighted, but by graduation day it was deep brown with a red glow – ugh! Our hair could not touch our collars, so we got haircuts. I guess that was better than wearing hair nets while serving food. Eyeliner was not allowed, but we could curl our eye lashes and wear moderate mascara. The lipstick of choice – theirs, of course – was Persian Melon by Revlon. And we were encouraged to wear blue eye shadow. Was that to coincide with the red, white and blue paint job on our aircraft fleet? As for jewelry, we were allowed one watch and one ring. The “girl next door” image was taking hold right before our eyes.
What is really laughable now is how the classrooms were described in our brochure. They said they were cheerful, and we would also have beautiful grounds and facilities which included a swimming pool, tennis courts and a modern exercise room to enjoy in our spare time. The fact is, we had an incredible amount of material to absorb in a short period of time. In those days, there were classes graduating almost weekly, and the program was designed to get us in and out of the training center and on to the airplanes as rapidly as possible. So for me personally, I don’t remember taking advantage of those extra perks, because I was busy studying and memorizing.
As we were getting closer to graduation, we were being fitted for our uniforms. In the summer of 1964, the uniform was designed by Ben Rieg (an international New York couturier) for Fashionnaire – the uniform manufacturer. The uniforms a few years earlier looked similar, but differences were the accessories and the manufacturer. Those ’61 and ’62 classes wore Spectator pumps which were navy blue and white. We were told to buy solid navy blue shoes and were allowed a little shorter skirt – just beneath the knee – WOW, SEXY! My first uniform blouse was made of white cotton, rounded notched lapel, short sleeved with four toggled pearlized buttons down the front. The bottom of the blouse had a zig-zag finished look. The skirt fabric was 100% worsted wool in aqua blue tone, straight design, with back kick pleat and side zipper and bottom closure. The lining was diamond pattern in aqua blue with no pockets. The fitted jacket, same fabric as the skirt, had no collar, three-quarter length sleeves, with three aqua buttons down the front and two vertical pockets. The lining was the same as the skirt with the same label. We also had a full-length aqua raincoat to match our uniform. Our raincoat was lined in aqua blue toned satin. The label for the raincoat read “Ceiling Zero”, styled by Blauer, made in the USA.
There was also the infamous “sugar scoop” hat which we all loved – NOT! But we had to wear it. The reason we were told was that the hat was a symbol of authority and also completed our look. Plus, it came with a hat pin that we were told we could use for minimal protection. This hat was made of worsted wool – aqua blue with multi rows of aqua stitching, trimmed in the back with a narrow aqua gros grain ribbon that ended in a center bow. A matching material hat pin was included. Part of the jewelry allowed was a silver logo half-wing pin which was worn on the left side of the hat. All our uniform costs including undergarments would be taken our of our pay checks monthly until they were paid off. But after this initial cost, new uniform items were not our responsibility.
Now our look was almost complete. We had our jackets, skirts, blouses, plus a hat and raincoat. All we needed now were the accessories. These accessories were short white gloves, navy blue leather standard uniform purse and navy blue pumps. We were encouraged to buy the 3” heel because it made our legs look their best. To stay within the parameters of the GND look, we were reminded again – one watch, one ring, and ABSOLUTELY NO EARRINGS.
The week we were fitted for our summer uniforms, we were also fitted for the winter one as well. That uniform was a royal blue called “Blue Vision” which came with long navy blue leather gloves. DID LOVE THOSE GLOVES! The winter uniforms were manufactured by “Delta Designs” and were also designed by Ben Reig. Both of these uniforms used the same purse and suitcase. The latter was a 21” hard navy blue Samsonite case.
As part of our on board attire we were also issued smocks. The standard summer uniform at the time featured a multi-colored pastel striped material which had originally been earmarked for DC-6 airplane curtains. However, we were given the smock that was to be worn with the winter uniform instead. This smock also had stripes, but they were narrower and had colors of soft turquoise, purple, green and tan. It buttoned down the front, and the neckline had a collar that tied in the front through two buttonholes. We wore this cover-up through mid-1967.
Even though the tailors came to the training center to fit us for our new uniforms, we had to go out of the Compound to buy the proper foundations which included girdles with garters and bras with good support. I remember we took the United bus, but details are vague. Luckily, one of my consultants actually worked at the girdle shop part-time after graduating from training. The shop was called “The Stewardi Dress Shop” and was located on Miner Street in the Illinois suburb of Des Plains. This small town had a few shops, restaurants, and bars for our weekend get-aways. But if I had any great weekend adventures there, they are now hidden deep within my memory.
As I learned more about our uniforms, I realized we graduated at a time the conservative look was about to disappear – at least for a while. That was a good thing! The jet age with the DC-8, the Boeing 720, French-made Caravelle, and the new Boeing 727 was dictating a more sophisticated image, which would soon be visible in our new winter uniform. The piston DC-6 and Viscount turboprop, along with the Convair 340 were being flown on shorter routes while the the jets were getting more exposure on the longer ones. Even though the number of jets in our fleet was growing, we the class of September 2, 1964 departed training with propeller-age attire. We had been caught in a vortex between the old and the new – the more relaxed and conservative age of the prop aircraft versus the rapid and aggressive style of the new jet age.
When we became stewardesses we had specific guidelines (all in the manual). It would take only a few years for these rules to change dramatically. Manual revisions were done monthly, and page after page was being replaced with new material. It was like a revolving door of paper. The new paper brought new guidelines. The no eyeliner rule changed to encourage false eye lashes. Sugar scooper hats turned into hats so tall they could be knocked off exiting the plane. And the girdles with garters became just garter belts holding up new white nylons.
Starting in the late-60’s through the 1970’s the airlines spent mega-bucks on their different uniform looks. Each carrier tried to outdo the other with wild colors and high fashion. The stewardess/flight attendants were now being packaged to attract passengers. The meal services and the inflight crews were important differentiators in higher revenue numbers. During this period air travel passenger numbers doubled from 100,000,000 in the mid-60's to 200,000,000 in the mid-70's. (Note 2) The major push started in 1965 when the jingle “Fly the Friendly Skies” debuted in television ads. This was a fun and clever way of catching viewer attention, and it was successful. United’s passenger loads increased. Airlines ads in those days were as prevalent as the drug ads of today! (Well, maybe not so much as the bombardment of drug ads.) Those ads continued strong and were working until the interference of deregulation in 1978 under the Carter Administration. Upstart airlines became 30% of the airline market. (Note 2) These low fare airlines appeared rapidly and then disappeared just as quickly. The big carriers competed with them and lowered their fares as well. These low cost carriers were just too small to compete. Ironically, as fares went down, well-dressed passengers disappeared as well.
By 1981, our uniforms began a more conservative look – once again. That year we left behind our “rust-colored” uniforms for navy blue. That uniform change coincided with the start of our frequent flyer program – “Mileage Plus.” It seems great looking uniforms were no longer needed because of the new incentives. This look has now been around for over 30 years, with accessories changing occasionally.
Now with uniforms fitted and proper foundations bought, we are almost there -- graduation day. Our biggest obstacle was the dreaded last week of training – EMERGENCIES. For several days, we got up early – like at 3:00 a.m. – and took the gray bus to O’Hare International Airport. This training was the most important part of becoming a UAL “stew.” If we didn’t pass, we were gone! I mean, “Hi mom, did you miss me?” This happened to a few members of my class.
Learning emergency procedures required several days of classroom activity taught by United professionals. United had a separate building at O’Hare which housed different tenants. The Medical Division and Personnel were two such tenants. The building was separate from the terminal, and the employees’ parking lot was adjacent to the building.
As we learned new material in the classroom, we took that knowledge and reviewed it in the evening back at the training center. Our new manuals became instrumental in helping with our studies. All the airplanes had their exit operations printed in that manual. Also included in the manual were first aid procedures, how to operate our oxygen bottles, and what commands to use if we had to evacuate an airplane. Each airplane had its own chapter in the manual. We were being taught how to read and use our manuals. Later, while flying our trips, it was our responsibility to look up the plane we were boarding and review “Need to Know” material from the manual.
The fun part of this training was taking a flight on a DC-6. As our class was strapped in, we watched our instructors open a window in flight, so we could feel what a pressure loss felt like. We also watched our instructors lift up in weightlessness as our pilots executed a rapid descent. This training flight is deeply embedded in my memory.
Prior to this DC-6 flight, we also put on jump suits and jumped down slides on a parked 720 outside one of our hangars. Ironically, in the United video given to retiring flight attendants in 2003, it was my class that was shown executing emergency drills by jumping into inflated slides.
As this exhausting week ended, we knew we were just days away from starting an incredible adventure. From a very structured environment for over five weeks, we 35 were going to leave this nest to be free to fly solo on our own individual path. We knew also that for the first six months we would be on probation, so we did our best to behave. If we didn’t, we did our best not to get caught.
So on Wednesday September 2nd, my instructor Sharon Ann pinned on my silver wings which read, Miss Osborn. After the lunch and ceremony we returned to our rooms, packed up our things, said our goodbyes, and left Elk Grove Village, just two miles from O’Hare Airport. For me, I stayed in Chicago, lived by the airport with one of my classmates, and was the first out five days later on a double Minneapolis turn-around. Being the youngest in the class also meant that I was the most junior in seniority. As a result, I was the first one called on Reserve to be assigned a trip. Others left Chicago and went to their assigned “hubs.” My consultant classmate chose Newark and lived in Greenwich Village. Years later we flew together out of Denver and had an incredible month. We both retired June 30, 2003, along with 2500 others, when United was restructuring from bankruptcy.
As for the girdles with garters, that was a serious matter for the office bound “flyers.” Undercover supervisors were sent out on different flights on “girdle check patrol.” These trips were built into the schedules of these undergarment enforcers who were actually paid to put their hands on our butts. Some were more gentle and kinder than others. Some just slid their hands across our buttocks, while other had a full squeeze and leave approach. If their fingers felt soft but firm, it was time for a write-up. These write-ups were returned to our individual supervisors and placed in our files. When I retired, my file was full of notes saying, “Watch Barbara Osborn – she wears earrings.”
My adventure was wonderful. I transferred 10 times and met so many interesting people along the way. I don’t wear a girdle with garters anymore – I found that Spandex works just fine and hardly anyone wears nylons. And if they did, we now have pantyhose.
We have come a long way from the days of appearance checks, but they have been replaced with a more serious and more restrictive environment, both on the airplane and in the terminals. Looking back, the harassment we experienced then seems rather innocent compared to our flying world now.