Will Dollies with Trolleys Take to the Skies?

"Place your seat backs forward, your trays in their upright position … and keep your hands off my tail."

Standard flight attendant patter? Not yet, but it could be next year, at least over the Atlantic, as British Airways flight staff get fitted for new uniforms from a glamorous young designer better known for dressing starlets in skimpy, sparkly couture.

Designer Julien MacDonald, recently tapped as artistic director for the French fashion house of Givenchy, has been commissioned by the national carrier to revamp its staff uniforms. The several hundred-thousand dollar deal will put his uniforms on some 32,000 airline representatives by 2002.

Although MacDonald has not yet gone public with his planned design, he says he has a 21st Century concept in mind. The uniforms will have "the MacDonald stamp; a tight waist and sharp silhouette. The main color will be navy and I'll be using lots of stretch material, which helps define the body."

Macdonald explained his approach: "I want to bring glamour back to travel. That's what it's all about. The girls will look sexy and the men will look like strong heroes. They'll be the envy of other airlines."

Famous Fashions in the Sky

It's not the first time big-name designers have flown their fashions. Oleg Cassini did up TWA uniforms as far back as the 1950s. In the 1960s, Pierre Balmain designed a sarong-style Singapore Airlines uniform. And in the 1970s, Valentino created a hot pants outfit for TWA, Jean Louis crafted wear for United, and Pucci did up a psychedelic design for Braniff.

But MacDonald's plans to bring the catwalk to the plane cabin are hitting turbulence, especially from the union that represents flight attendants.

"Our members should not be dressed as sex objects," says a spokesman from the Transport and General Workers' Union, which has 44,000 members in the civil air transport section. "Some female stewards have voiced concern that a too-revealing uniform would be inappropriate and could lead to an increase in cases of harassment and 'air-rage' incidents."

The union argues its members should be dressed in smart, functional and comfortable outfits. "For us the cabin crew are safety professionals, not marketing tools for British Airways," said the spokesman. "Female stewards are not dollies with trolleys."

'Sexy Is Glamorous'

British Airways is taking the criticism in stride, arguing that MacDonald's intentions have been misunderstood.

"In the world of fashion sexy is actually glamorous," Spokeswoman Camilla Wrey told ABCNEWS.com. "Glamorous is great and if the staff feel confident every day they come to work then they are able to offer the best level of customer service. We don't intend to turn them into sex objects."

Wrey added that the unions will be involved until the final design decision is made and that the staff reaction so far has been very positive.

The flight attendant has served as a kind of ambassador for the airlines since the 1950s, notes Keith Lovegrove, author of Airline; Identity, Design, Culture. Lovegrove says that a glamourous look can help attract customers and increase airline ticket sales, citing the dramatic jump in customer base for Southwest Airlines in the early 1970s, when it dressed its flight attendants in high white leather boots and hot pants.

But fashion can go terribly wrong too, adds the author. An example? The outfits worn by Denim Air flight attendants in the '70s, made up of neck-to-toe denim, denim shirt, denim trousers and bright red necktie with the top button of the shirt left undone to give a casual appearance.

Concluded Lovegrove: "In the end the stewardess must have authority. If she looks right then one glance from her will make a grown man or woman sit down and belt up. If MacDonald does his job properly then this will be enforced."