Red Revolution

Red skirts, ruby shoes and bold crimson lipstick —  there’s no way you could miss the famous Virgin Atlantic flight attendants as they strut about the airport and, perhaps, through your flight. This has been the dress and makeup code for female flight attendants of Virgin airlines pretty much since they were founded in the 80s. However, due to feedback from female employees, Virgin has recently made changes to their guidelines. 

Firstly, Virgin Atlantic will no longer require female attendants to wear makeup. However, if cabin crew (male or female) do opt to wear makeup, they still need to follow the company’s red colorway. Secondly, all female Virgin attendants will automatically be provided with pants as a uniform option in addition to a skirt. 

What does this move mean for female attendants? According to Virgin Atlantic Executive Vice President Mark Anderson, “Not only do the new guidelines offer an increased level of comfort, they also provide our team with more choice on how they want to express themselves at work.” 

My initial thoughts: this is evident progress towards equality in an industry that has been notorious for its (ever increasing) gender pay gap and its emphasis on a woman’s physical appearance. Granted, the job is highly customer service-driven, but male employees were never required to wear makeup to be seen as presentable for travelers. 

As gender sociologist Lisa Wade has stated, the first flight attendants were men, and early airlines often had bans on hiring women. But the profession quickly became dominated by women, who were expected to play the role of cheerful domestic worker and sexpot to appeal to largely male travelers.

However, the ladies of the Fat Mascara beauty podcast had some different opinions. One of the podcast’s speakers, Jessica Matlin, noted that Virgin airlines has always been ahead with their style. For instance, Vivienne Westwood designed their uniforms. Thus, the harmonious red lipstick worn by all the female flight attendants contributed to the brand’s valuable visual identity. In fact, Jess was truly “pissed” about Virgin’s new guidelines. She believes that we have to separate the lipstick from issues regarding the patriarchy and feminist concerns. Instead, red lipstick shows that attendants care about their job and their presentation to the customer. If any attendant was truly uncomfortable with wearing the required makeup, she should not work for Virgin.

It’s true that other companies, both in and out of the airline industry, have makeup and dress codes too. However, Virgin’s new guidelines seem to fall more in line with the airline’s newer competitors, such as EasyJet and Ryanair, which typically have more relaxed rules on uniforms.

Ultimately, I understand why a company would value having a universal and easily recognizable visual identity. The ladies in head-to-toe red essentially serve as brand ambassadors for Virgin Atlantic without extra costs to the company. But I believe that what’s even more valuable to society is freedom of creative, individual expression and exposure to people of varied physical appearances, all with the hopes of greater understanding and acceptance. 

– Tiffany Wong