High fashion

When skies were friendly and the seats first-class

These days, air travel is anything but glamorous. Exhausting, nerve-racking and frustrating, it's an experience most people dread. Between color-coded terror alerts, being herded like human cattle and getting felt up by checkpoint personnel, it's enough to make you take the train instead.

Perhaps that's why Elissa Stein chose now to release Stewardess, a photography book that recalls the otherworldly days when flying was glitzy, ritzy luxury and your "flight attendants" were chic hostesses, not just waitresses in the sky.

In a brief introduction, Stein chronicles the history of stewardesses, from their 1930 genesis (as nurses on board), to their gradual transformation into hostesses — with height and weight requirements and strict hair and makeup. By the 1960s, they'd simply becoming swingin' sex kittens in the air — with short, tight, outrageously colorful outfits.

Both the black-and-white and color photos pop with delightful camp and kitsch; some of the "uniforms" are so outrageous it's hard to conceive of anyone wearing them in a nightclub, much less an airplane. Stein also nods to other cultures, including advertisements from Japan Air Lines, featuring a lovely geisha-like stewardess, resplendent in her full kimono, gracefully serving tea.

True, there's a sexist element to all the nostalgia: perfectly groomed model-like women in skimpy, snug clothing, whose only purpose is servitude. But then the women's rights movement (and a staggering fuel crisis) delivered a flattening punch to the airline industry in the '70s. And the whole idea of air travel was overhauled. Flying was once a very expensive, very rare treat afforded only by the privileged and wealthy, hence so much pomp and circumstance.

A warm, engaging collection of vivid photographs and unintentionally amusing airline ads, Stewardess is a great addition to any coffee table — or table tray, provided you return it to upright and locked position for landing.

Sarah Klein is Metro Times culture editor. Send comments to [email protected].

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