Thursday, February 24, 2005

Braniff Airlines: The World's Greatest Airline?

Braniff Airways is the inspiration behind the airline Venus Airlines in my musical, Plane Crazy. Oh, how I wish Braniff was still flying today...

In today's world of cut-rate airlines, it's difficult to remember that air travel was once a much more rarefied experience. Even routine flights would include roses for female passengers and seven-course meals on fine china and linen tablecloths. Stews at the time were required to make omelettes from real eggs in the galley, to cook steaks to order, and to run a complete bar.

"...boarding a plane was such an event that stewardesses took souvenir Polaroids of passengers as if they were sailing on an ocean liner or catching a dinner show. Once, there were planes with piano lounges. Once, a first-class meal might have included turtle soup served from a tureen, Chateaubriand carved seatside, and cherries jubilee. Steaks would be cooked to order -- eggs, too, on breakfast flights."

-- Bruce Handy, Glamour With Altitude, Vanity Fair, October 2002

The time period of the mid-1960s, when Plane Crazy is set, was also about freedom. It was a unique period in history where technological changes (computers, Pill, jets), social changes (mass media, leisure society, Baby Boom teenagers), and political changes (Civil Rights, Vietnam, Cold War) combined in an explosive fusion of color, sound, and energy.

Forty years later, the decade of the 1960s continues to capture our imagination in movies, music, and popular media. Plane Crazy has chosen to focus on two interesting and contrasting themes of the time: The glamour, pizzazz and flash of the mass media "Jet Age" fascination; and the serious issues and compelling questions of the Women's Movement.

"It rained very hard the day we made our first flights as stewardesses. Our brand new, custom-tailored, form-fitting, wrinkle-proof, Paris-inspired uniforms became soaked in the dash to the cab."

-- Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones, Coffee, Tea, or Me?: The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses, Putnam, 1967

Coffee, Tea, or Me? was a big bestseller, testament to a strange elation that was sweeping the nation. The book was written in worldly first person, and it was illustrated by Bill Wenzell, who turned those two stews into "Wenzell Girls," a cartoon type he made famous in Esquire magazine (butt like a beach ball, breasts like twin missiles, Barbie Doll feet).

"This morning, sightseeing in New York -- and in about five hours, I'll meet my date for dinner in San Francisco."

-- American Airlines recruiting poster, circa 1961

Faith and Rachel weren't just serving caffeine -- they were mixing an explosive cultural cocktail. Call it "The Sexy Skies". Made of airplanes, advertising, and affluence, this sky-highball was first shaken-not-stirred in 1965, two years before the publication of Coffee,Tea, or Me? The key ingredient was a sassy new uniform for stewardesses.

The instigator for uniform change was Mary Wells, and she worked for Jack Tinker & Partners, the advertising agency hired in 1965 by Braniff Airways. It was imagination and pizzazz that earned Wells her fame, and she brought both to the Braniff account. The aim was to enlarge and update Braniff's image, a campaign that coincided with company expansion into new technology and new international routes.

In 1961, when Continental Airlines launched its "Proud Bird with the Golden Tail," it simultaneously put its stewardesses in gold uniforms -- a classy bit of innuendo. Wells went Continental two better. She hired the designer Alexander Girard to redesign Braniff terminals and repaint its planes, and she hired Emilio Pucci, himself a "bomber" (he flew missions in WWII), to design new stewardess uniforms. These designers took Braniff over the rainbow, leaving stately silvers and golds behind for a jewel-toned palette with an Op Art jiggle.

"The End of the Plain Plane," Braniff ads boasted, and could as easily have said "The End of the Plain Jane." Wells made her campaign a play of perceptions, a party game of double meanings. Sex was the message and in an era famous for its subliminal advertising, there was nothing subliminal about Braniff. Girard fitted its famous Love Field terminal with round mirrors on the ceilings, and the gate areas were hung with huge white globe lights -- a bachelor pad in heaven.

Well, "the wish to fly," wrote Freud way back in 1910, "...is a longing to be capable of sexual performance." In Business Week, in 1967, Mary Wells put it bluntly: "When a tired businessman gets on an airplane, we think he ought to be allowed to look at a pretty girl." In her new Pucci uniform, the Braniff stewardess was like no other girl on the concourse.

She was now stewardess-as-jet-setter. In the sixties, a Pucci dress -- like Gucci shoes and an Hermes handbag -- was one of the status symbols among the rich and mobile. These little printed sheaths and A-lines in luxurious silk jersey were fantastic for travel, could roll up into a ball and come out swinging. And they were light as air. Pucci based his uniform on these high-society frequent flyers. He threw out that dread three-piecer of the last 30 years, and built Braniff women a with-it wardrobe of layers, pieces that could be added on or taken off depending on the weather -- a concept that was advertised, to cries of sexism, as the "Braniff Air Strip."

"Marriage is fine! But shouldn't you see the world first?"

-- United Airlines recruiting ad, circa 1967

Construction of the clothes was sixties simple, but with a curious recurring note of architectural interest: there's a round, rolled, slightly stand-away collar that appears throughout the collection. Though it makes room for a Pucci-print scarf, this wide, round collar really seems to be waiting for an astronaut's helmet. And it comes! Pucci's pièce de résistance was a clear, plastic bubble of a helmet, designed, he said, to preserve the women's hairdos. It was the perfect lack of gravity -- Mod meets moon walk. Wells' perception play was working. Braniff stewardesses were soon accepted as the best-looking women in America, leggy birds of paradise in their bright Pucci plumage, feathery exotics who might have picked up their colors on one of Braniff's South American flights (routes exclusive to Braniff).

Eventually they became brides of paradise, with Braniff a kind of breeding ground for the second wives of wealthy men. "Does your wife know you're flying with us?" asked one of Braniff's pointed print ads, yet another innuendo that hit home. Mary Wells herself became a second wife, marrying none other than Braniff president Harding Lawrence in 1967.

"Every [passenger] gets warmth, friendliness and extra care. And someone may get a wife."

-- United Airlines advertisement, late '60s

Braniff was based in Love Field in more ways than one. And "Love Field" is not a bad way to describe the famous patterning of those Pucci prints. Whether it was biomorphic forms in a frenzy of cell division, or jazzy geometrics riffing inside a short-wave, these imploding, oscillating color fields suggested good trips, Op Art orgasms.

1 Comments:

Hi: I worked for Delta Air Lines from 1969 to 2004, and am trying to obtain the complete article, "Glamour with Altitude", from Vanity Fair's Oct., 2002 issue. Can you help? Thanks, cxw
cxwalley@yahoo.com, at 5:34 PM  

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