Monday, January 24, 2011

Do you have "The Airport Look?"

Since the inception of passenger air travel, things have changed dramatically. Where once only the rich and privileged could fly and, thus, would be dressed to the nines, eventually economy and coach fares meant that most anyone could be found on a plane. For a while, folks still tended to dress up, for even a seat in coach was expensive to a lot of people and travel was an event of sorts. Now, Lord only knows what can be found on an airplane (and, in truth, people are encouraged to dress comfortably and sensibly in the event of an emergency. I guess if there’s a forced landing, the airlines don’t want someone careening down the inflatable chutes in their best furs, cloaks and dresses ala Gloria Swanson in Airport 1975?)

1970 marked a time when air travel was in transition. It was a time when stewardesses were still geared towards pleasing the male eye and looking beautiful no matter whether their clothing was functional or not. It was also a time when a more casual approach to clothing was taking hold, but there was still a foothold left of the old ways: the men’s suits, the ladies’ coats, the overall desire to appear groomed and presentable.
When Ross Hunter produced the blockbuster film Airport, directed by George Seaton, he wasn’t about to leave the clothing of the film to chance. Hunter was, above everything else, a lover of things elegant. Who better to take hold of the film’s costumes than a woman whose clean lines and classic silhouettes had already been put to use by Delta Airlines in the 1950s when the jet age was coming into vogue? Edith Head designed the beige shirtwaist uniforms with complimentary jackets, trench coats and kid gloves worn by the company’s stewardesses. (In one of the books about her, Head was quoted as also having designed the uniforms for United Airlines in the ‘60s, but I could find no other record of this.) Already the proud owner of seven Oscars (she would later cop an eighth one for The Sting), Head was and is the woman most heavily awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

For Airport, Head developed a rather vast assortment of airline uniforms (for the fictional airline Trans-Global) that incorporated the unusual combination of cadet gray and golden yellow. (Some might consider this a rather vomitous combo, and it does take getting used to, but it long ago grew on me and now I love it!) The ladies exhibit an unending variety of uniform styles throughout the movie, all tied together through the color scheme and the little red and black logo square for the airline.
Chief stewardess Jacqueline Bisset’s uniform attempts to exert some degree of authority thanks to sleek, long sleeves and a collar with a wide tie hanging down the front. This perceived authority is offset significantly, however, by the very short length of her skirt! Still, in her key scene with stowaway Helen Hayes, in which she’s mostly seen from the waist or shoulder up, the officiousness comes across.
Other gals on board show off different looks. Strangely, when the stewardesses board the plane, they are shown in slacks and turtlenecks (and coordinating outerwear, luggage, etc…), yet when the plane takes off, they are shown in miniskirts and short-sleeved ensembles. Why would an employee report to the airplane in one outfit and then change ON the plane? Airplane lavatories are not known for their spaciousness and it seems bizarre that the ladies would change clothes in the cabin. That whole thing is just odd. The outerwear, by the way, was greatly toned down from conception to filming. (See illustration at left.) Initially consisting of bright yellow parkas with heavy fur around the face, these later emerged as more sedate gray, hooded coats with yellow lining. The fur trim would be assigned to another character

Anyway, as shown below, the blonde hostess wears a cute little get up with a gray pinafore covering a yellow short-sleeved shirt, a Trans-Global scarf tied in her hair and an apron with that same logo worked into the waistband. (The sketch for this particular uniform is to the right.) Her friend enjoys wearing a sort of sports shirt inspired creation that also includes the signature colors of the airline (the seats of the plane, of course, also consist of this color combination. For a person like myself, who likes everything to coordinate, this is a thing of beauty!)
Still another look is shown off by the fourth stewardess. She wears a gray mini that also has a tie down the front, but it is slimmer and less pronounced than Miss Bisset’s. She has a yellow collar and some yellow banding on her sleeves, but they are short. A fifth girl has another completely different look, with a yellow ring around the clavicle of her gray uniform! It’s a mystery as to whether all these differences denote any sort of ranking of the girls or if it was merely an attempt to show how this airline allowed individual personality to come through so long as it stayed within the accepted guidelines. In any case, they do all come across as a unit and are readily identifiable as airline personnel despite these differences in attire.

Incidentally, in this last picture, the one with the shorthaired blonde stewardess, you can see Marion Ross (later to be Mrs. Cunningham on Happy Days) in the foreground, distraught and motioning for assistance. She is merely an extra in the film, but has her little moment when, after the mad bomber has damaged the plane, causing decompression, she hollers ceaselessly, “Can I get a blanket?!” She says it no less than four times, even before she appears onscreen, and I always crack up at the lady on the opposite side (who looks like a man in drag, baby!) who appears to want to tell her to shut the fuck up already! Of course, she already has her blanket, up to her chin.

Speaking of the bomber, he goes and messes up one of Head’s creations but good when he decides to detonate his explosive-triggered briefcase as Miss Bisset is pounding on the lavatory door for him to come out. Somehow, despite being blinded and dazed from the explosion, she manages to resist flying out the hole in the back of the plane (that has sucked everything not nailed down out into the sky and has even dragged pilot Dean Martin down the aisle!) by holding onto a stray seatbelt strap.

On the ground, public relations employee Jean Seberg had her own uniform of sorts, a grey mini-dress with a white top section and a matching coat. It demonstrates the ever-classic simple lines that Head espoused throughout her career, though Seberg detested it, feeling that the color washed her out. (Head knew long ago from her work on Vertigo that blondes actually could become strangely captivating in gray and, indeed, Seberg’s face and hair take center stage in this ensemble. Head believed in making the actresses stand out beyond whatever clothes they had on.)
For those occasions when Seberg had to venture out into the frigid Lincoln, Nebraska winter, Head designed a white, hooded coat with fur trim and a pair of white boots. (Jesus! I hope she didn’t ever become lost out on the snowy runway all dressed in white!) In keeping with the times (the heyday of the miniskirt), her legs are still mostly bare aside from hosiery in this outfit. This film is a rare case of Head bowing to current conventions in her costume design. She tended to avoid trends and was reluctant, as a rule, to put anyone besides Shirley MacLaine into a miniskirt.

You might, at this point, be asking yourself, “Is he really going to do an entire blog post about the colors and styles of the stewardess uniforms in one movie?!” Well, sorta… Ha ha! The reason for it, though, is because (apart from my deep love of the movie Airport and the fact that it’s been a while since I’ve written about it) I want to share some of the hooty, vintage promotional material that was distributed upon the film’s release.

Having assembled a marquee-crushing, all-star cast for a film based on a best-selling book, Universal saw opportunities to branch out into the marketing of tie-in products. Chief among these was the launching of an entire fashion line based on “The Airport Look.” This wasn’t a brand new concept. Not too long before, a clothing line based on The Sandpiper (starring Elizabeth Taylor) had swooped into stores.

Miss Head went to work whipping up a whole series of concoctions that fit what she believed the current woman on the go would like to wear. Though the bulk of the costumes for Airport consisted of the aforementioned stewardess uniforms as well as the get-up that Seberg sports in the film, the clothing line obviously couldn’t be based on those unless housewives suddenly wished to go to lunch or do their grocery shopping looking as if they were about to ask, “Coffee, tea or me?”

No, the primary thrust of the collection would have to do with the clothing found on some of the general passengers and that of the one primary cast member who gets to show off some showy clothing, Miss Dana Wynter as Burt Lancaster’s social-climbing wife Cindy.
Wynter has a small role, but manages to appear in about five or six different outfits thanks to a sequence of flashbacks. She also demonstrates the versatility of her chic white-striped haircut. During a phone conversation with Lancaster, their previous squabbles are flickered onto the screen. She harps about their standard of living while her luxurious home (complete with a domestic servant!) is seen in the snippets.

While her character may have a point that Lancaster is married to the airport and constantly gives her the shaft, she is written as very one-dimensional, brittle, quite shrewy and not at all understanding. Wynter makes a few subtle attempts to add shading to the role, such as in her final scene, but overall she’s basically a glamorous bitch. (This makes her an Underworld fave, of course!)

Appearing in just one scene is the enjoyable character actress Jessie Royce Landis as a passenger who is suspected of smuggling in overseas purchases to avoid paying any duty on them. She is all decked out in fur and fabric. Then there’s Barbara Hale (of Perry Mason fame) who has a small role as Dean Martin’s cheated upon wife. These ladies are both well dressed, but don’t show up much in the finished film.

The other major female characters, Miss Helen Hayes as an impish stowaway and Miss Maureen Stapleton as a dejected diner waitress, certainly won’t be remembered for the clothes they wear in Airport. There wasn’t much of a call from ladies asking to be dressed as the second-shift proprietor of a greasy spoon.
When it came to Hayes (pictured above with longtime showbiz veteran Benny Rubin, who played a passenger on the plane), there was quite a shift from initial illustration to finish product. Sketches done for Hayes’ character first depicted her in a garnet colored coat and a hat with a veil. Though surely the scene-stealing Helen was delighted to be rid of a veil that might obscure her Oscar-grabbing features, she was probably less thrilled to see such a saturated color as the deep-toned red be tossed away in favor of a more drab (but also more appropriate for her poor character) tweed. In return, she was awarded a funny brown pom-pom on top of her hat that perfectly capped off her endearingly larceny-leaning old lady character. Still, who in the world was going to line up at a store for this ensemble? (Incidentally, could these sketches be any less like Miss Hayes? They depict a very tall and lean person, which she certainly was not!)
Thus, The Airport Look clothing collection is aimed at a clientele that really isn’t even represented in the movie! One look at the sketches and the photographs of the finished pieces and one has to really scratch his head to see what on Earth these clothes have to do with the movie! Also, the movie takes place in the dead of winter while the clothes all scream spring and summer. Whah??

Edith Head prided herself on the ability to bring out the best features of her ladies when it came to costuming them in films. She used tricks of the trade to help out many actresses, Barbara Stanwyck being a prime example, but she never kidded herself that her unadorned, demure, simplistic clothes would burn up the cash registers at department stores. While she did have a measure of success later on with dress patterns bearing her name, The Airport Look collection did not exactly “take off” and was pulled from stores before too long.

The marketing people, however, didn’t stop at tying in clothing to the film. There was also a push for American Tourister luggage, featured in a scene that has Bisset packing her wardrobe for a trip to Rome while Martin slithers and grabs his way all over her. Then, my personal favorite, a promotion to have The Airport Look with one’s hair! Yes, the bouffant bobs of Dana, Jean and Jacquie (even if Jacquie’s was a wig!) were also to be hawked across the nation.

I don’t know how well or how much this succeeded, but I suspect that it sort of went the way of the clothing line. At least the movie itself was a smashing hit at the box office. Made for around $10 million, it grossed over $100 million at a time when such a thing was rare. In fact, if you adjust the income of this film for inflation (the only fair thing to do, really) it still ranks as the 42nd highest box office earner of all time! It was an unqualified blockbuster. So what if not so many ladies bought the tie-in clothing. Sometimes we are content to watch something without being a part of it in our wardrobes. (Incidentally, the idea to launch clothing based on the movies didn’t end here. Theoni V. Aldredge’s dresses in 1974’s The Great Gatsby were configured into a line sold at Manhattan’s Bloomingdale’s department store.)
As for Miss Head, she not only went on to design the flight attendant uniforms for Pan-Am airlines (shown above, the outfit was also available in navy blue), but proceeded to come up with the very first female uniform for the U.S. Coast Guard, a feat she took much pride in. Click to read the attached article with pictures on the right.

So, to answer the question posed in the title of this post, no, I don’t have The Airport Look, but if I did, I probably wouldn’t be unhappy and if I was a female in 1970, I probably would have at least put a stripe in my hair and tossed a fur over my plainly chic, Edith Head-ish sheath dress if I had the money to do so. For now, I’ll just have to be content to admire those who did and, thanks to DVD, will for all time have “The Airport Look!” Oh, and I have to say that the ENTIRE TIME I have been researching, composing, editing and finagling the pictures for this post, I have had the aural earwig of masterful composer Arthur Newman's rousing, rambunctious credit music blaring in my ears nonstop! I love the music that kicks the film off, but, sadly, Newman died before the film was released and received a posthumous Oscar nomination for it. If you want to hear it and see the blustery opening credits, click here!


Topaz said...

After reading one of your previous posts mentioning Airport, and remembering how much I loved that movie when it came out, I netflixed it and watched it again a coupla months ago. It was not as good as I remembered it, but nothing ever is, is it? But Jackie and Jean were still beautiful and I love looking at movies from the '60s for the period costumes and sets, so I loved your entry.

Speaking of clothing line tie-ins, I remember that one based on the wardrobes of the men of the TV series "thirtysomething" was introduced at Bloomingdales in a very timely way...about a week before the show was canceled. Oops.

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Lovely post, and nice to see old favourites Dana Wynter and Jessie Royce Landis, most of whose parts must have been snipped out. I saw Dana in the original Invasion of the Bodysnatchers again the other day, so perfectly 50s! Miss Wynter was one of those interchangeable leading ladies, she and Barbara Rush were practically sisters if not twins!

Poseidon3 said...

Topaz, that is sad and hilarious about the Thirtysomething clothing line. Lord, it was on for years... what took 'em so long to get the line out?!

Michael, I think Dana is so gorgeous in Invasion. Something about her dark coloring in that sharp black and white. She and Barbara did have a lot of similarities in their looks and manner.

TJB said...

Well, let's face it: Big Edie Head was not a fashion designer, she was a costume designer. To her credit, she did her task extremely well: making her leading ladies stand out. That's what won her those Oscars, as well as the staunch support of the actresses she dressed for the screen. But there was a reason that Givenchy was asked to do the haute couture gowns for Sabrina and Funny Face -- there's no way Edith could have pulled those off. She couldn't even sketch -- her various assistants had that job. If you look at a series of "Edith Head" sketches from different films or shows, each one is in a completely different illustrator's style! But, that's just my quibbling. When all is said and done, Edith Head gave good costume.

Donna Lethal said...

Edith's talents aside (TJB knows more than me), I love this post! I also love "Airport" strictly for fashion reasons and the one time I met Miss Bisset (who was amazing looking and started talking to me at a party-I wanted to die!) all I could think of was Airport, but I was too dumbstruck to say anything.
It is a shame that people dress so shoddily on airlines nowadays. The first time started making us remove shoes at the airport, the security guard pointed to mine (leopard mules) and I simply said, "Thank you." I didn't know I was supposed to take them off.

TJB said...

I simply said, "Thank you." I didn't know I was supposed to take them off.

HA!!! I love it! I still dress to fly. I don't understand not doing so. I understand the concept of being comfortable, but since when did wearing presentable clothing seem so cumbersome to normal people? I wear dark slacks, a thin sweater, and a sport coat, and I'm fine for the 8 or 9 hours in the air -- and, better still, I look nice when I arrive at the hotel!

Topaz said...

I still dress to fly, too, as well as for other things. In addition to feeling better about myself if I know I look presentable, you definitely get treated with more deference and respect by others.

jason said...

Fascinating! I loved reading this. Now I have to re-see the movie.

Ookoo said...

I'm lucky to own an Edith Head's "Airport Collection" dress. I'm glad to read this blog because I haven't been able to find much information about it. You can see it on my Flickr page:

Poseidon3 said...

Ookoo, That is SO neat!! Thanks for sharing. How cool to have that. And was it $7.00 originally (!) or at resale? I also wondered if those seams on the front have pockets built in. Thanks again.

Ookoo said...

Yes, those are real pockets in the front. I've wondered about that $7 price, too. I think it was probably a resale price. It just seems too low, even in 1970's dollars.

I'm glad to have the opportunity to brag about it. And I love your blog!