Did They Really Wear Girdles? Q&A with a Former Pan Am Stewardess

PHOTO: Cast of Pan AmPlayBob DAmico/ABC
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Did flight attendants really have to wear girdles back in the day? Yes, indeed, says Valerie Waterman, only let's use the era's proper title: They were stewardesses, not flight attendants. The year was 1970, and 20-year-old Waterman had just received her letter of acceptance to Pan Am's stewardess training program. Included in the letter was a reminder to show up wearing a girdle.

"They wanted you to be smooth, because, well, some people can ripple a little bit," Waterman noted, then laughingly added, "Me, I ripple all over the place now!"

And so began her six-year career with the legendary Pan American World Airways. It wasn't quite as exciting as the ABC-TV show "Pan Am" (Waterman will talk about "romance" shortly), but it had its moments. Best of all were the airline's signature "around the world" flights lasting 10 or 11 days with layovers in the great cities of the world. Waterman visited the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, Sydney Opera House, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Acropolis all before her 24th birthday.

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The fun didn't last forever, though. Waterman's career, which spanned 1970-1976, was actually a bridge of sorts between the good old days of flying and today's grim realities. She began with "charm school"-style training and ended up keeping an eye out for bombs onboard. Here is her story.

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As noted, stewardesses-in-training circa 1970 followed an unusual regimen. Yes, there was plenty of emphasis on safety, but they also learned things such as how to properly address royalty (!), and how to put on spikey false eyelashes ("not to mention the blue eye shadow, to match our uniforms," says Waterman).

Also on the agenda: how to mix a mean martini and that other first-class favorite, the Manhattan. Plus, cooking classes. When Waterman started, there were no pre-fab meals, not in first class: "We'd take a bloody hunk of meat and whip up a complete roast beef dinner with all the trimmings."

As for the girdle, she never wore it again once training classes were over. "I was 5 feet 3, and weighed 100 pounds soaking wet," she says. Yes, they had weigh-ins occasionally, and there was also a rule banning married stewardesses (which changed during her tenure) but at the time, none of this bothered her: "I was only 20, and my consciousness hadn't exactly been raised at that point."

Graduation took place at the Pan Am building in New York City. Her class had its wings pinned on by fabled Pan Am founder Juan Trippe. "He was lovely, so proud of Pan Am and everyone who worked there. He really wanted us to shine." Then she began to fly.

Her favorite route was probably the Tahiti run. Beautiful flight, great hotel and a four-day layover in paradise. Any romantic escapades with pilots in Tahiti or elsewhere? Uh, not really, says Waterman. "Most of the pilots were about 20 years older than we were." Though that's not considered a vast age difference today (look at George Clooney and all his young girlfriends), she deadpans, "The pilots were really nice, but movie stars they were not."

Nevertheless, there was a lot of girl talk in the evenings back at the hotel and one stewardess would invariably ask, "You getting any?" She meant sleep! "We were always tired, always in another time zone," laughed Waterman. "We craved a good night's sleep more than anything."

In case you were wondering, stewardesses were not encouraged to flirt with passengers, but sometimesstuff happened. One time, Waterman carefully stowed some paintings for actor Robert Mitchum who was very grateful. "He stood up and grabbed me," remembers Waterman, "then bent me back and kissed me right on the lips."

Another passenger of note was a wealthy Hawaiian woman who often traveled to and from the mainland with her pet Gibbon. The little ape had his own first-class seat, and was always quiet and well-behaved. "We'd give him fruit," said Waterman. "That little guy was a great passenger. Great table manners, too." She added he was certainly easier to deal with than some of the screaming kids on her flights.

Waterman quit in 1976, a decision that was not made lightly but for her, the fun was fading. There was that string of three fatal accidents in the mid-'70s involving Pan Am planes in the South Pacific. More ominous, though, were the increasing number of hijacking and terror incidents. In late December 1973, Pan Am flight 110 was swarmed by several armed men while awaiting departure in Rome. Grenades were thrown on the plane, killing 29 passengers and one crew member. "Then later on, we got a new assignment while walking the aisles during final cabin-checks," said Waterman. "We were told to keep an eye out for bombs."

A final episode that cued her departure came in April 1975, when Waterman worked one of the final regularly scheduled flights in and out of Saigon before the fall of South Vietnam. She struck up a conversation with a group of nurses heading to the embattled capital to work with refugees, and their courage and commitment deeply moved Waterman. She left Pan Am soon afterward to enroll in nursing school herself and spent the rest of her professional life as an RN. She married her non-crew member sweetheart and is the proud mother of two.

But she loved being a stewardess, and watches the episodes of Pan Am with great fondness. "It reminds me of so many good times." But everything's different in the air now. Says Waterman matter-of-factly, "Today, flying is just transportation."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.