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Goodbye Australiana, hello world: the new Qantas uniforms

It’s hard to imagine it today, but once people would put down their newspapers to stop and stare at young women as they strolled through airport terminals wearing figure-hugging suits, the half-winged…

What effect will the new uniform have on the Qantas workforce? Qantas

It’s hard to imagine it today, but once people would put down their newspapers to stop and stare at young women as they strolled through airport terminals wearing figure-hugging suits, the half-winged badge glistening on their jacket lapels.

Are people going to do that on Thursday morning as 11,500 Qantas staff fill airports and aeroplanes in their new uniforms?

The new Qantas uniforms.

Those who do may wonder why a brand that has traded on its “Australianness” when circumstances suited it has now ditched its Indigenous art-themed uniforms in favour of an international look that would not seem out of place on French or Italian flight attendants.

The answer may lie in Qantas' recent corporate upheaval, its appetite for offshoring and and plans for a push into Asia.

Step back in time

Historically, the decision to create a new airline uniform usually happens for three reasons: to show off a shiny new bit of technology, when times are tough, or when there is a change of management and someone wants to make a difference.

Qantas’ decision to launch a new uniform is probably a combination of all three. The first of the Boeing 787 Dreamliners arrived this year, times are tough for Qantas, and there was a change of management.

Travelling with Qantas 1930s Style. Qantas

This is only the 10th uniform in Qantas history.

Flight stewards came on board the flying boats in 1938 wearing military-style khaki suits. In 1947 Qantas made the brave and contentious decision to purchase the triple-tailed American Lockheed L749 Constellation plane and thereby sever some of Australia’s ties with England, the previous supplier of choice.

To welcome the new fleet, flight hostesses were employed and their first destination was the fifth floor of the David Jones department store, where they were fitted with a military-style navy suit, complete with forage cap.

Female summer uniform 1948 - 1959. Qantas

Female winter uniform 1948 - 1959. Qantas

New threads, same strife

What will this new uniform mean for the Qantas workforce?

It is hard to imagine wearing the same clothes to work every day for nine years. There is nothing like a new uniform to help build the morale of staff, and recapture a brand.

In the downturn of the industry after September 11, almost every major international airline created a new uniform for their staff. There is no comparing 9/11 with the current industrial turmoil but if Qantas wants their organisation to appear “as one”, a uniform can do that by creating a sense of unity and encouraging professional pride in an organisation.

Leon Paule-designed Female Uniform 1964 -1969. Qantas

But as staff morale plummets, it will take more than a new frock and trousers to keep the smile on the faces of Qantas staff. Perhaps Qantas recognises this already.

This week in the daily papers Qantas ran an ad in the fuchsia pink and ruby red colours of new uniforms, proclaiming that “It’s about a new look that goes deeper than our new uniform”.

Two years ago, Qantas announced they were redesigning a new uniform for cabin crew and ground staff. Keen to keep up with their national brand identity, it was announced they were looking for an Australian designer and the uniform would have with a distinctly Australian look. The words “fresh and contemporary” kept on popping up and out of CEO Alan Joyce’s cherub lips.

Leon Paule-designed Female Uniform 1969 -1971. Qantas

They found an Australian designer – but there was a twist. Martin Grant from Melbourne has been living in Paris for the last 25 years, building a loyal international clientele of A-listers such as actors Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett and US socialite Lee Radziwell.

Grant, after extensive consultation with airline staff, said he was keen to capture something of the lost glamour of the airline. His uniform features his signature trench coat, and a trilby hat made out of recycled bottle tops. The stand-alone piece is the French navy dress with a bold diagonal colour block of red and fuchsia.

While Grant may have recreated something of the past in the simple tailored look of the suits and the simply cut dress, there is also something about the colour, and the pared-back style, which is reminiscent of the one of the most memorable music videos of the late 1980s, Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible”.

Yes, there have been complaints to the Flight Attendants Association of Australia National Division about the new uniform being tight, but with all new uniforms there are grievances with the designs (where to put the pen) and the style guidelines (only three shades of lipstick).

Sans Australiana

Peter Morrisey introduced this new uniform in 2003 Qantas

However, the move to a plain classic style creates a corporate look that says nothing about Australia in the way that the previous Indigenous design featured on the Peter Morrissey uniform did, or the Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) uniform from 1987 which was covered with kangaroos.

Bounding on the back of the bicentenary celebrations, YSL-clad Qantas crew were worn down by the requests to sell the shirts off their backs to international tourists keen to get a piece of Australiana. At the time of the release of the YSL uniform, Vogue Australia commented that:

notably absent from the wardrobe: a hat, one impediment the modern flying woman can do without. Notably present pants, a must for most of us.

Yves Saint Laurent designed uniform 1986 - 1994. Qantas

It would have to be one of the toughest design gigs in the world creating a uniform for a workforce of thousands, styled to suit ages 21 to 65, in 13 different sizes.

Fashion always creates it own death, and as the new uniforms start to roll out, it is time to start thinking about what the next uniform might be like.

As Qantas attempts to move into the Asian market, I’d say that while a future design might include a stylised cheongsam, I wouldn’t bet on it having a flying kangaroo pattern.

Prudence Black is the author of The Flight Attendant’s Shoe, a history of the Qantas uniforms and the uniforms of other airlines.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Yuri Pannikin


    Yes, nice, but the service needs to go with it.

    Recently, one of the worst flights I have experienced was a New Zealand/Australia flight in economy.

    The cabin staff were shockingly ill-disciplined, and I don't have anything but ordinary expectations. And yes, I do fly regularly with other airlines for comparison..

  2. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    The woman on the right looks like a flasher or a stripogram.

  3. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    "It’s hard to imagine it today, but once people would put down their newspapers to stop and stare at young women as they strolled through airport terminals wearing figure-hugging suits"
    Not hard to imagine at all! Men still do this, and always will.

  4. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    "US socialite Lee Radziwell" aka sister of Jackie Kennedy-Onassis!

  5. linda chalmers
    linda chalmers is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Delivery systems

    It's a horrid uniform those poor women having to work in that tight fitting uncomfortable outfit. It is not a requirement of that job to be a model with a hourglass figure yet that is who that uniform is designed for. Time to get real and design clothes that fit women without being tight, very few women want their breast emphasised when they are working. Women want clothes that are comfortable and and allow them to do their job

  6. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    It's just moving the deck chairs on the Titanic, isn't it? Singapore Airlines seems to manage with the same gear for their cabin crew for decades. The only uniform I remember was Air New Zealand, a while back. Their guys were indistinguishable from many businessmen passengers -daft.

  7. Julie Crews

    Ethicist at Edith Cowan University

    Spot on Yuri and Colin

    Qantas needs to focus on why the uniqueness of the brand has all but disappeared. I recently did a 'long-haul' with Qantas and the service and experience was appalling. In contrast I had my first Singapore airlines flight 35 years ago when the campaign centred on the 'Singapore girl' and that memory, service and consistency is still there 35 years on.

    Wake up Qantas and stop 'banging on' about Virgin - you've taken your eye off the ball - it all comes down to leadership and employee relationships. The cabin crew don't care and it shows!

  8. Pamela Curr

    campaign coordinator

    BUT WHY BLACK- dreary dreary dreary