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High-flying fashion

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High-flying fashion

Cabin crew uniforms form an important part of a carriers' identity; this is certainly true for our national airlines where they've long played a starring role. ​

The first flight stewardesses from Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) in 1946. Six were appointed from 3,000 applicants. From left: Betty Morton, Val Beckett, Launa Magnus, Judy Everand, Joyce Patterson, Pat Woolley.

Whites Aviation Ltd. Alexander Turnbull Library (WA-03093-F).

A military influence

The military style of the airline's earliest uniforms reflected the era – a time of war and its aftermath. It was at this time that Air New Zealand predecessors - Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) and New Zealand National Airways Corporation (NAC) - began their inaugural services throughout the country and across the Tasman to Sydney.

Few people in these early days of commercial flying had much experience of air travel. The military look of the uniforms was authoritative and reassuring. Flight crew could be expected to handle any situation, and passengers could feel safe with them.

A first for females

Women were first appointed to the TEAL flying boats crew in 1946. Before that, the cabin had been staffed by male stewards, most of them straight from service on ocean passenger liners. Air hostesses would soon become the public face of the airline.

Many air hostesses had trained as nurses, and they were even encouraged to wear their nurse's medal. Nursing was thought an ideal background for coping with any crisis on board. No doubt the excitement of international travel trumped a shift at the hospital any day.

Fashion in flight

TEAL teamed up with Vogue magazine and top United States designer Handmacher for a photo shoot in 1962, linking high fashion with exotic air travel.

Courtesy of

The 1960s was a decade in which fashion was revolutionised - in the air as well as on land. Air travel became closely linked with fashion and the wealthy 'jet set'.

TEAL turned heads in 1963 when it partnered with American Vogue magazine and fashion designer Handmacher in a giant promotion of the Coral Route to launch Handmacher's new Coral Line of women's clothing. To show off the garments "in South Seas settings", TEAL flew top New York model of the day, Margot McKendry, and a production crew around New Zealand and the islands of the Coral Route on a two-week trip .

TEAL and NAC invested in the best fabrics, including silk and fine New Zealand wool. 

In 1961, a touch of Parisian chic graced TEAL aircraft. The hostesses appeared in elegant uniforms designed by Christian Dior, and made locally by El Jay.

Local talent

This glamorous NAC air hostess uniform was designed in 1965 by Barbara Penberthy of Babs Radon. The outfit, made from wool barathea dyed a golden topaz colour, was known as the 'Golden Cloud'.

Archives New Zealand (AEPK 20231 W2774 Box 12).

NAC made its entry into high fashion in 1966. Out went the military influence, and in came the 'Golden Cloud' – the airline's first uniform to involve a New Zealand designer.

Barbara Penberthy of Babs Radon designed garments that brought an effortless elegance to New Zealand’s fashion scene, influenced by international trends. Her desire was to make 'beautiful clothes for women to feel good in'.

She stayed true to her word with this uniform. Hostesses found it easy to work in, and commented that the colour suited most skin tones. The hat came from a local milliner and was quickly nicknamed the 'Mustard Pot'.

Pacific connections

In 1965 TEAL changed its name to Air New Zealand. Reflecting the changes in the 1960s, they introduced a note of informal elegance on board. In flight, hostesses changed out of their Dior uniform into a simple A-line dress.

The stylised hibiscus picked up the cabin's décor, which emphasised the airline's strong connection with the South Pacific.

Come fly with me!

In 1970 NAC introduced brightly coloured mini dresses, worn with knee-high white boots or black loafers.

Archives New Zealand (AEPK 20231 W2774 Box 12).

Air travel jetted into the 1970s with a rainbow splash of colour and an eagerness to attract younger passengers. Ticket prices were falling, flying was fun, and New Zealand's airlines made sure their uniforms reflected that.

NAC's eye-popping ensemble from 1970 was one of their most memorable outfits. Its funky informality and vibrant colours marked a desire to get hip young things hooked on flying. In 1976, NAC included the option of trousers for women – a must-have for the 1970s wardrobe.

Meanwhile, Air New Zealand opted for an elegant cocktail look. Vinka Lucas' glamorous design was followed up with a breezy outfit by Parisian designer Nina Ricci, worn until 1987.

This was the last time their styles would diverge. By the end of the decade, they had merged into one organisation.

Corporate chic in the Pacific fleet

With its clean lines, classic tailoring, and broad shoulders, this mid-1980s uniform reflects the power dressing of the day. Designed by Isabel Harris of Thornton Hall, it made its debut in 1987, just two months before the New Zealand stockmarket crash.

Blues and greens were key colours, reflecting the airline’s identification with the South Pacific. The public felt a growing pride in local fashion design, though a specific 'New Zealand' look had yet to take to the air.

The one that bowled them over

Barbara Lee's design, introduced in 1992, was rolled out to the entire airline staff. For the first time, travellers saw Air New Zealand dressed as a team.

Air New Zealand archives.

Introduced in 1992, Barbara Lee's tailored design would prove to be one of Air New Zealand's most popular uniforms. It featured versatile mix-and-match separates and a bowler hat.

The women's wardrobe featured a collection of tailored and print separates in Pacific jade and navy blue, while the men wore jackets in Pacific Jade, with navy trousers, and a tie featuring the Koru motif.

For the first time, the uniform was worn by the 1,200 staff at airports, travel centres, and airline offices worldwide. Travellers saw Air New Zealand dressed as a team. The new wardrobe reflected the airline's desire to be a 'sophisticated operation'.

The airline also sponsored New Zealand Fashion Week for six years. And it created a lucrative export award to help local designers expand their sales overseas. The inaugural winner was Karen Walker.

The new New Zealand look

Barbara Lee's uniform was finally replaced in 2005 by top local designer Zambesi. They took cues from nature, with muted tones of teal, pounamu (greenstone), and schist, and koru-inspired curves. 

The uniform polarised staff and customers. Some were concerned that it camouflaged cabin crew among the passengers. Others applauded the casual look and colour scheme as a unique reflection of this country.

In 2010, Air New Zealand launched a new look for its uniforms, ready for the arrival of its new fleet of Boeing 777-300s. The 'twilight pink' of Trelise Cooper's design captured the airline's upbeat mood perfectly.

She joins a prestigious line-up of designers who have lent their talent and skill to helping keep Air New Zealand as far ahead in the style stakes as possible. 

Further reading

Air New Zealand. 2014. Air New Zealand: Celebrating 75 Years. Bauer Media Group. Auckland.

New Zealand Fashion Museum. Air New Zealand uniforms online exhibition.

Cite this article

Keith, Michael. High-flying fashion. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 15 February 2016. Updated: 11 March 2016.

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