Make-up is no longer mandatory for Virgin Atlantic’s female cabin crew. How progressive!

Comment: If this seems a reluctant shunt, rather than a leap forward – it’s because it is

Virgin Atlantic air stewardess and steward training. Photograph: Mike Kemp for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Virgin Atlantic air stewardess and steward training. Photograph: Mike Kemp for The Washington Post via Getty Images

 

Female cabin crew at Virgin Atlantic can breathe easy – at least their skin can, as make-up is no longer a mandatory part of their uniform.

The airline said its decision to lift the requirement for mandatory make up for cabin crew was a “significant change”.

Flight attendants who choose to wear it are advised to follow the palette of lipsticks and foundations set out in the company’s guidelines. The airline is also introducing trousers as part of the standard uniform for women, instead of providing them only on request and an on a “case by case” basis.

If this all seems a reluctant shunt, rather than a giant leap into modernity – well that’s because it is.

I can’t have been the only one surprised to learn that women had to “make the case” to be allowed to wear trousers in an environment where their responsibilities might include, you know, evacuating a plane or administering life-saving CPR. I’ve no experience of either, but I can’t imagine they’re easily done in a tight skirt.

But it’s not just Virgin: airlines across the board have been reluctant to let go of anachronistic dress codes, and the lingering suggestion that – whether they’re dealing with emergency landings or truculent passengers – a female flight attendant’s most important attribute is presentability.

In 1958, The Irish Times reported that Aer Lingus was launching a round of recruitment for “air hostesses”, who could expect to earn twelve pounds a week starting out, plus a 5 per cent commission on bar sales.

Positions were offered for “up to 500 girls between the ages of 20 and 26, who consider they have all the necessary qualifications – attractive appearances, good sense, a pleasing personality, sound health, experience of dealing with the public.”

The requirement to speak French, German or Italian was last on the list. If you got married, of course, that was grounds for immediate termination of your employment.

The industry has thankfully moved on since then – though sometimes, it seems, at a glacial pace. Qatar Airways was reportedly still firing female staff who got pregnant or had tattoos as recently as 2015.

The previous year marked the last hurrah of Ryanair’s late, and frankly not at all lamented, Bikini Girl Cabin Crew Calendar, the less said about which the better.

British Airways finally lifted its ban on trousers for certain classes of cabin crew only in 2016 – but only after a protracted, two-year negotiation with employees.

Airlines have long espoused uniform requirements that would provoke instant ridicule in almost any other environment. In a document entitled “Your Image is the United Brand”, United Airlines lays out its own rules, which include the stipulation that tattoos must never be visible while in uniform, even through a shirt; and chewing gum is never permitted in uniform. For women, the length of their skirt “may not exceed 1 inch above or 1 inch below the crease of the back of the knee” and “plain black tights may be worn from October 15–April 15.”

Make-up should be applied “conservatively in order to achieve a natural look and in shades that are compatible with individual skin tones. Extreme colours are not appropriate and may not be used.”

While it’s not just women in the airline industry who are subject to strict sartorial guidance – make-up, nail polish, goatees, “trendy facial hair styles” and something called a “Van Dyke” are banned for male cabin crew at United – the rules across the board are still far more restrictive for women.

Lipstick is not a symbol of oppression – left to our own devices, many women (this one included) are reluctant to go a day without it. Wearing make-up can be a statement of creativity, empowerment, fun and individuality.

But when your employer makes it mandatory, it becomes a symbol of something else: a historic culture of female subservience; the double standards that regard men as vital contributors and women as their decorative sidekicks; the suggestion that as a woman, whatever your qualifications and experience, your first duty is to look nice.

Ryanair did not respond to queries today about their cabin crew dress code or rules on make-up, but photos of its smart new uniform launched in 2015 didn’t include any trousers for women.

Aer Lingus had not responded either by the time of publication. Its cabin crew uniform is currently undergoing a redesign.

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