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Classic airline uniforms from the past, and future

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC

What they wore: flight attendant fashion

Source: International Women's Air and Space Museum, Cleveland, OH.

Since 1930, when efficient, caped nurses became the first stewardesses, it's been a tradition for flight attendants to look great while making sure airline customers are comfortable and safe.

The role of the flight attendant hasn't really changed, but cabin crew outfits certainly have. Here's a look at some of the chic, fashionable and intriguing uniforms that have been spotted in the skies.

—By Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC. Baskas is the author of "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You, " and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at . Follow Road Warrior on Twitter at .

Posted 28 June 2014

Boeing Air Transport, 1930

Source: The Boeing Company Archives

In 1930, Ellen Church became the first airline stewardess after convincing Boeing Air Transport (now United Airlines) that the presence of onboard nurses would go a long way in helping early passengers overcome their fear of flying.

Seven other registered nurses soon joined Church's team, gathering to pose for this photo wearing uniforms made of dark green wool, with matching green and gray wool capes.

Braniff's 1966 Pucci uniform

Source: From the collection of Cliff Muskiet.

"Back in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s all stewardess uniforms looked alike," said Cliff Muskiet, curator of Uniform Freak, an online museum of flight attendant uniforms. The only colors used were navy blue, dark green and brown for winter uniforms and light blue, light green and beige for summer uniforms, said Muskiet.

It gave stewardesses "a very conservative look," he said. During the mid-to-late 1960s, however, airlines began turning to fashion designers and ad agencies to cultivate a hipper, sexier image for flight attendants. In 1966, Braniff International Airways crew members would be hard to miss wearing this eye-catching, geometric print dress with matching tights by Italian designer Emilio Pucci.

Braniff's 1965 'Air Strip'

Source: Braniff Collection

A titillating print and TV advertising campaign for Braniff in 1965 was called the "Air Strip" and featured a Pucci-designed uniform with several layers that could be removed during a flight.

"The TV commercial depicted a stewardess performing an airborne striptease," said Victoria Vantoch, author of "The Jet Sex—Airlines Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon. "

"Braniff turned the stewardess into a patently sexual icon and other airlines soon followed," she said.

Braniff's mid-'60s bubble helmet

Source: Braniff Collection | The History of Aviation Collection

In the mid-1960s Pucci also created an unusual clear plastic bubble helmet as part of the uniform line designed for Dallas-based Braniff.

The helmets weren't intended to be worn into space, but rather to protect a flight attendant's hairdo if she needed to walk across a windy tarmac.

Hughes Airwest's 1970s Zamparelli uniform

Source: (L) Ted Huetter, Museum of Flight | (R) Cliff Muskiet

According to Seattle's Museum of Flight, in the early 1970s American artist and designer Mario Armond Zamparelli was asked by business magnate and aviator Howard Hughes to create new flight attendant uniforms for Hughes Airwest.

A memorable Airwest outfit was this Sundance Yellow princess-line knit dress, which had a matching zippered jacket. When going outdoors, flight attendants could add a hooded cape or a princess-line coat.

Continental hot pants

Source: Cliff Muskiet

"Hot pants and short dresses with hot pants underneath were a common look in the 1960s and '70s and Continental, PSA and Southwest Airlines all had uniforms featuring that style, " said Muskiet.

"In those years the stewardess was used to attract male passengers and hot pants were part of the plan," he said.

Cathay Pacific's 'too sexy' modern uniform

Source: Cathay Pacific

Compared with the hot pants-themed uniforms some airlines required their flight attendants to wear during the '60s and '70s, these Cathay Pacific uniforms, launched in July 2011, appear to be quite tame. But the union representing the airline's flight attendants recently complained the outfits were "too sexy."

In a statement, Cathay Pacific said it has made some modifications to the uniform to address concerns about the length of the blouse and the tightness of the skirt, and crew members "are welcome to exchange their uniform any time if they feel the fit is not right."

Eastern Air Lines' future uniform

Source: Lisu Vega

Although many of the older airlines are long gone, some of the classic airlines are looking to return to the skies, such as PEOPLExpress.

In May 2014, a group trying to bring back Eastern Air Lines, the iconic Miami-based carrier that operated from the 1920s until 1991, held a contest to choose a designer for the uniforms crew members might wear when the airline returns to the skies. The winner was Miami-based designer Lisu Vega, whose collection includes a variety of chic, navy and teal outfits with matching hats and luggage.