Written by Ceylan Yeginsu
Virgin Atlantic’s female flight attendants are known for their red skirts, ruby shoes and bold crimson lipstick. But in a surprising move announced this week, the airline gave them new options: to go without makeup and to wear pants.
Since its first flight in 1984, the airline has consistently upped the ante with its uniforms, choosing sleeker cuts and ever bolder shades of red. But the airline’s announcement Monday reflects a gradual shift in the aviation industry, which is notorious for putting a premium on female flight attendants’ appearances, toward giving them more choice over how they express themselves at work.
“We want our uniform to truly reflect who we are as individuals while maintaining that famous Virgin Atlantic style,” Mark Anderson, an executive vice president with the company, said in a statement. “We have been listening to the views of our people and as a result have announced some changes to our styling and grooming policy that support this.”
Budget airlines such as Ryan Air and Easy Jet have relatively more relaxed rules than more established airlines like British Airways, which only recently dropped its “no pants” rule and still requires female flight attendants to wear makeup.
Female flight attendants on American Airlines, however, are required to wear lipstick or lip gloss. The Israeli airline El Al requires that all female flight attendants wear high heels to greet passengers and should not take them off until they are all seated. In January, Pakistan International Airlines sent a memo to its staff members giving them six months to meet the company’s weight limits, CNN reported.
Virgin Atlantic said it made its decision based on staff feedback. Under the previous policy, female crew members were required to wear blush, mascara and red lipstick at a minimum.
In a note sent to female crew members, Virgin Atlantic said that crew members were no longer required to wear any makeup, but were welcome to wear the lipstick and foundation recommended in the company’s guidelines.
Pants have also been made available as an option to all women and will now be provided as a standard when they join the airline. Previously, pants were available only upon request.
“Not only do the new guidelines offer an increased level of comfort, they also provide our team with more choice on how they want to express themselves,” Anderson said.
The policy shift has been received positively by women on Twitter, with some welcoming the airline to the 21st century. Others expressed shock that there was ever a makeup requirement in the first place.
But at least one flight attendant disagreed, saying that a full face of makeup was a necessity for the job.
“In a customer-facing role, with the anti-social hours we do and in the terrible cabin lighting, frankly, I feel I need it to look semi-human,” the flight attendant, Angela Caserta, wrote on Facebook.
Elle Graham-Dixon, a New York-based advertising executive who gives speeches on gender and language, welcomed the airline’s policy shift. She recalled being asked to put on a “nice dress” before giving a presentation at a job a few years ago.
“At the time I was shocked — and had to remind myself that what I had to say was more important,” she said in an interview. “But I wore the dress.”
“When a brand like Virgin signals, ‘This isn’t the stuff that matters,’ it paves the way for much-needed change,” she added. “I prefer a jumpsuit for pitching these days. Ideally with pockets, please.”