We’re all familiar with it, the chunky goggles, flappy flying hats, the leather jackets. It’s aviation apparel, or rather what we imagine someone would wear when flying a plane. By today’s standards, these classic garments are impractical and probably quite dangerous to wear. However, in the 1920s and 30s, aviation fashion was game-changing and permanently changed women’s wear.

THE WOMEN’S NURSING SERVICES ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 108195) Demobilised Army Nurses on a transport ship at Boulogne, ca. 1919. Copyright: © IWM.

After the first world war, the trends in fashion for both men and women was changing dramatically. Yet, for women it was more pronounced than ever before. The huge increase in working women was changing how clothes were obtained. Whilst homemade clothes were still popular, ready made clothes were on the rise to meet the demanding changes in styles that many could no longer keep up with. Many women in Europe and America had worked in war-time factories alongside machinery and in make-shift hospitals, and part of that life was the wearing of suitable, practical, clothing. This also brought about a clear distinction between working clothes and leisure clothes. Prior to, and during the war, clothes were largely kept over several years in a constant state of being mended and tweaked. The new working woman, however, did not have the time to spare mending or altering her clothes.

Enter the aviatrixes.

Memorial Day air races, 1934, USA.

The breathtaking confidence that it took to fly an early plane combined with the symbolic power of a giant metal machine, meant those first female pioneers were rocketed to stardom. It wasn’t just Amelia Earhart who enjoyed being a household name, others such as Mary, Lady Heath, Bessie Coleman, and Amy Johnson were sensationalised. Each aviatrix had their own unique story to tell, and became known in turn for their unique dress sense. Whilst these women were usually reported with individuality, their fashion choices were rather a homogeneous phenomenon. Yet, it is important to remember that, during the Depression, these pilots were often middle-to-upper class, with money to spend. Their expensive hobby was a fascination to a society in which large sections of the population were struggling to even feed themselves. For example, Amy Johnson appeared in magazine adverts for Castrol Oil, and had music composed and published for her homecoming flights. You couldn’t escape them.

Advert for Castrol Oil, Woman Engineer Magazine, March 1933.

The aviation outfits that appeared in magazines and in newsreels reflected the practicalities required of uniforms and popularised the wearing of unrestrictive garments, even if the cost wasn’t practical. The wardrobe of these female pioneers consisted of separate skirts and blouses, sturdy boots, and oversized jackets, which were very popular with those with a more relaxed attitude towards clothing. Accessories such as ties, large belts, and scarves were also worn. Gone were the restrictive and hyper-feminine shapes of the Edwardian period. Women no longer wanted to be confined to the indoors, they had had a taste of non-domestic physical work and they needed their clothes to reflect that.

Garment label from ‘Amelia’s Fashions’, from the Henry Ford Collection.

Amelia Earhart even launched a fashion line, Amelia’s Fashions, which included items such as trench coats and wool suits, and may have even been the first to sell separates meaning that women could purchase each garment in the correct size. No faffing about with tailoring at home. Then, in the 1940s, lightweight ‘sports clothing’ officially bridged the gap between clothing for work and evening. Think Katharine Hepburn, with her wide-legged trousers and loose shirts, who further helped lessen the pressure of justifying practical clothing. 

Of course, there are many other social and economic factors that dictate the evolution of styles but the effect of aviation mania encouraged the conversation on the changing occupations and aesthetics of women that had begun with WWI. We can still see traces of this fashion craze today, from photoshoots in posh magazines where a supermodel leans boldly near a propeller, to collections on the runway (you only have to do a quick search on Pinterest to see examples for both).

The legacy left by these aviatrixes has been that flight, and the clothing that goes with it, can be a by-word for empowerment. One could even say that whilst female aviators pioneered fashion, their unique fashions in fact helped garner a public passion for flight.