If you wonder how a society sees the role of women, check out its flight attendant uniforms. Back when they were called stewardesses or ‘air hostesses,’ their bold, colourful, Emilio Pucci outfits embodied the glamour of air travel. They also sexualized them for the average businessman passenger. In the 1980′s and 1990′s came professional respect through androgynous suits. Although flight attendant fashion is now mostly thought of in terms of Pan Am nostalgia, how an airline dresses its crew still speaks volumes. Many airlines have countries’ names in their titles and send their flight attendants around the world. There’s an element of national pride in how they dress, like Olympic teams or Miss Universe contestants.
When Turkish Airlines set about redesigning their flight attendant uniforms, they could have predicted that people would be interested. But when a photo of a group of outfits featuring ankle-length caftans in thick brocade leaked on Twitter, the response was swift and cruel. (Swiftness and cruelty are what the Internet does best.)
“It seems like they went to a Persian Carpet outlet and took the cheapest ugliest ones they could find and converted them into uniforms,” said one commentator. Another complained the uniforms resembled those of Star Trek. That’s a bad thing?
Critics singled out the little round hats for specific mocking. Were they possibly inspired by the fez, the traditional hat banned in Turkey since the 1920′s? If so, that would demonstrate a witty subversiveness rarely seen in flight attendant uniforms. The overwhelming concern was not that the new designs were unattractive, but that they were too conservative, covering women’s bodies practically to the ankle.
“They may as well wear a burqa,” opined one critic quoted by The Economist. The uniforms look quite distant from the burqa, the billowy, face-covering garment worn throughout the Middle East. But a comparison with Turkish Airlines’ previous uniforms, which featured navy jackets, vests, and the ubiquitous flight attendant scarf, shows the new designs are definitely more modest. Especially when you learn that Turkish flight attendants in the 1960′s wore bright pink and short skirts.
“The clothes look like they belong to Kuwait or Saudi Arabian Airlines,” opined Turkish designer Vural GÃ¶kÃ§aylÄ±. “They should reflect Turkey and Turkey is not this.”
The problem is that nobody can agree on what modern Turkey actually is. A majority Muslim country with a secular government, Turkey in the midst of an identity struggle. Cosmopolitan youths pull the country one way, while the conservative Islamist Justice and Development government pulls in the other. The struggle over social progress has played out, as it often does, over women’s clothing. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan first came to power, the fact that his wife always wore a headscarf in public was controversial. Now, almost all of the wives of his cabinet ministers do.
Secularists accuse Dilek Hanif, the Turkish designer who created the uniforms, of sucking up to the ruling party. (The news that Turkish Airlines is essentially no longer providing alcohol on domestic flights adds to this perception.) Responding to the outcry, Hanif explained that the offending uniforms were just a few designs up for consideration. She quickly released pictures of other contending designs. When you check out her company’s website, you see that Hanif creates glamorous, Western-style evening gowns. By hiring her to design new uniforms, Turkish Airlines wanted to please everyone, but instead they stumbled into a hornet’s nest.
After the unexpected scandal, the airline will most likely drop the controversial uniforms in favour of designs that will fly under the radar. You could argue that the incident was about nothing. But the fact that young people got so worked up over flight attendant uniforms and made the story viral highlights the fault lines of an evolving country. A changing country can often be turbulent.
Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_.