An Ode to the Flight Attendant Scarf

southwest2I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She wore orange short-shorts, a matching tight T-shirt and white knee-high go-go boots. The sexy getup wasn’t what stood out to me, though, nor was it the mile-high Afro. I didn’t even notice the silver tray with a Bloody Mary balanced on top of it. No, what I noticed the moment I saw her was the scarf.

All it takes is a scarf, I thought, as I stared at the vintage photograph of a pretty Southwest Airlines flight attendant. Excuse me, stewardess. Those were the days … at least that’s what I’ve been told.

Google the phrase “flight attendant” and click on “images” — and no matter what airline, most flight attendants will be wearing scarves. Like a little emphasis, the scarf underlines each smiling face.

I’ve been a flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier for eighteen years. When I’m not flying, I’m writing about flying.

I wrote a book about being a flight attendant, and on the cover is a photograph of a young woman. Well, really it’s half of a half of a smiling face. But — crucially — there’s a red scarf. No need to flip it over and read the blurb on the back. Just one glance and you know what the book is about.

In the early years of aviation, pilots donned heavy cotton scarves to keep from breathing in engine exhaust. Later, fighter pilots adopted silk scarfs to avoid chafing their necks — looking around for enemy planes required a lot of head turning. Today’s military still has uses for scarves: consider the fully wrapped sniper scarf. Other scarves are used in the military for decorative purposes, to denote unit insignias and emblems of pride.

Whenever anything interesting happens in the world of airlines, say a passenger gets duct taped to his seat or somebody freaks out because of a reclined seat, I get asked to do television interviews. Without fail, producers will suggest I wear my uniform. The answer is always no.

“I don’t need to wear a costume to talk about what’s going on in the world,” I told one reporter. But when we met at LaGuardia airport the next day, she whipped out two scarves from her purse. One for me and one for her, so she could play along. All it took was a scarf to be a flight attendant.

People like to mimic flight attendants. Don’t believe me? Check out how many stewardess costumes you see this Halloween. Also note the only real thing they have in common with my uniform: The scarf.

Nothing says flight attendant quite like a scarf.

During boarding a few years ago, a passenger looked at me funny and asked, “Do you work here?”

“Of course I work here,” I laughed. Why else would I be standing in front of the first class closet hanging coats? That’s when I realized what I wasn’t wearing: My blazer hung in the closet with all the other coats that, except for the two gold stripes around the wrist, looked exactly like mine. But more importantly, my scarf was wadded up in one of the pockets, along with a tube of lipstick and assorted hotel pens.

Flight attendant training lasted seven and a half weeks. It was hell. Those 53 days of training were more stressful than four years of college. This is why, I’m sure, airlines wait until we’re halfway through, when we’re just about to break, when we’re on the edge of a massive revolt — that or quit — to measure us for uniforms

I’ll never forget walking into the room. The walls were lined with little black suitcases on wheels and matching totes. Women holding tape measures stood in front of rolling racks. The clouds parted and the angels began to sing the moment we spotted the skirts and shirts, blazers and dresses. Standing in front of the mirror, I turned side to side taking in my reflection.

The scarf was the icing on the cake. I wanted to cry tears of joy. Didn’t matter that the ensemble would be payroll deducted — $800 from my measly $18,000 annual salary — or that I had four more weeks of training to go before I’d take flight. I thanked my instructor. Stockholm syndrome had fully set in. My scarf was tied.



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