If it is indeed true that you are what you wear, then consider the statement American Airlines recently made when, as part of its postmerger rebranding, it unveiled prototype uniforms for its flight attendants and other employees.
The color is charcoal gray — and lots of it. Gray dresses. Gray skirts. Gray jackets. Gray pants. Gray sweaters. For an accent color, the airline chose a muted shade of silver — gray’s flamboyant cousin.
These prototype uniforms, a not-so-daring departure from the standard navy that even Southwest (once the quirky outlier of domestic carriers) has adopted, are a reflection of an industry that is being defined by less comfort, more fees and dwindling competition.
There is no need to stand out — and so American, and others, do not.
“The tailoring is certainly nice looking, but gray isn’t the most confident choice of color,” said Heather Cocks, a fashion writer. “It doesn’t give the airline much of an identity, or a personality. It washes the flight attendants right into the walls.”
Panache has given way to performance, with flight attendants wearing functional uniforms that can better handle a job that has become more physically demanding.
It wasn’t always this way. A generation ago, attendants’ mini-dresses and knee-high boots were the personification of the go-go ’60s and the freewheeling ’70s, and for decades the uniforms were a tableau for designers like Emilio Pucci, Oleg Cassini and Halston.
More recently, Japan Airlines fitted its uniforms with tracking devices, concerned that resold outfits were turning up in inappropriate places or could be used to bypass security.
These days, the uniforms are an expression of another sort: the airline industry’s era of consolidation.
United Airlines, after its merger with Continental, introduced new uniforms in 2013, and American, which swallowed up US Airways, and Delta, which absorbed Northwest, are redesigning theirs.
There is a utilitarian tone — dark, durable and somewhat dreary — to what attendants wear on most domestic flights these days. Unwittingly or not, analysts and fashion observers say, this speaks to how flying is for the most part no longer an experience, but something that must be endured to get from Point A to Point B.
“Maybe the strategy is neutral but sophisticated, but it’s coming off to some of us as boring,” said Karen Hofmann, the chairwoman of the product design department at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. She added that the airlines could learn from the automotive industry, which is slowly moving away from the ubiquitous beige and gray interiors.
“There’s a huge opportunity to look at a uniform as something that can give passengers the perception of a premium experience and right now it’s pretty bottom of the barrel,” Ms. Hofmann said. “Uniforms are expressions, but you wonder if they’re driven by price point and cost.” It was not always that way.
The history of air travel in the United States is littered with airlines that no longer exist, and styles, too. In the early 1960s, Braniff hired Pucci, the Italian designer who treated airplane aisles as fashion runways. Those who were not quite as bold as Eastern Airlines’ van Gogh-inspired blouses or Southwest’s orange-and-white Creamsicle look usually managed to add flair with fedoras, sashes or scarves.
“If you look back historically, flying was initially seen as a very glamorous thing to do,” said Valerie Steele, the museum director at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “The jet set referred to the elite and very often the stewards and stewardesses looked very attractive and stylish.” It helped that flight attendants back then also tended to be younger.
Now, those qualities are relegated mostly to international flights, where foreign airlines are likely to incorporate not just native foods onto the menu, but also native design stylings into what the crew wears. Air France’s scarves, a reference to French women’s style, and Singapore Airlines’ kebaya, a nod to traditional Indonesian dresses, are two examples, Ms. Steele said.
“It gives you the sense that you are going on an international journey,” she said.
Mark Krolick, the managing director of marketing and product development for United, said the navy-black-and-gray uniform redesign after the merger with Continental was to create a consistent look, which would “convey professionalism and approachability about our people and our brand in general.”
An American Airlines spokesman declined to comment because the airline was still considering feedback from employees on the prototypes, which it displayed at Kennedy International Airport last month.
But an announcement in an internal company newsletter website extols the virtues of the color scheme.
“The charcoal gray uniform color allows for easy mixing and matching while maintaining a cohesive, elegant look,” it reads. “Different accent colors — white for crew members, light gray for airport customer service and light blue for premium services — distinguish the workgroups.”
Delta is in the initial stages of redesigning its uniforms for the first time since 2006, but it plans to retain one longtime signature element from its collection: a red dress. How the uniforms look is important, said Mike Henny, Delta’s director of customer experience. But they must also be functional.
“Flight attendants are traveling day in and day out,” Mr. Henny said, explaining why so many uniforms are navy, charcoal or black. “Dark colors are going to hold up better than light colors. We wouldn’t put them out there in a white suit.”
This point explains how the flying experience has changed — not only for customers, but for flight attendants, too.
“It’s a very physical job,” said Heather Poole, a flight attendant and author of the book “Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet.”
“We’re lifting bags and pushing and pulling 200-pound carts up and down the aisle,” she said. “We have to be able to move and that’s not easy to do in something that’s skintight or too short. Also, something that hides stains or is easy to wash off might be nice. On more than one occasion, I’ve stood in the lavatory trying to get out a tomato juice or coffee stain.”
Ms. Cocks, the fashion observer, has never stood in a flight attendant’s shoes, but she has traveled enough on crowded planes to feel some empathy.
“I would imagine work is a challenge,” she said. “Sick people, people stressed out because their baby is crying, people stressed out because someone else’s baby is crying.”
She added: “You don’t want to feel trapped in what you do for work as part of a nameless, faceless army. I tend to think a hit of color cheers things up immediately.”