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

A look at both the glamorous and the grim sides of life as a Pan Am stewardess.

ByABC News
October 12, 2011, 10:24 AM

Oct. 12, 2011 &#151. -- 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."