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Dressing The “Pan Am” Flight Crew On And Off Duty

For costume designer Ane Crabtree, researching the uniforms for the stewardess in the TV show “Pan Am” went beyond looking up photos from early 60s publications or finding period clothing.  She obtained an original Pan Am uniform, unstitched it, and studied every measurement before recreating the uniforms.  As she worked on the prototypes, she received valuable instruction from an expert panel.

“We have a few stewardesses who would come to visit, and even loaned us their Pan Am hat pin which we had molded,” said Crabtree.  “It gave us such a feeling of doing things properly and with integrity.”


The Pan Am stewardess outfit, originated by California designer Don Loper and fashion icon Edith Head, was designed to be completely uniform amongst all the women Pan Am hired.  Crabtree tailored each costume, from background extra to the four leads, to the measurements of each actress.  Since the material that was used to construct the uniforms is no longer made, Crabtree had to find vendors who could custom make fabrics that used pure wool, silk, linen and cotton.

“If you use pure fabrics you can have that same look.  Sometimes we throw a little stretch in because it molds around the body a little better,” said Crabtree.  “We cheat a little sometimes with lighter fabrics also because (of) the bright lights.”


Happy with the fabric blend, the next hurdle was acquiring the trademark Pan Am blue.  The tunis blue found in the original uniforms grayed out when shot with the Arri Alexa camera.  Working with cinematographer John Lindley, Crabtree tested a number of swatches of blue fabric to find what would appear truest to the original tone.  Once a tone was found, hundreds of yards of fabric were sent to a dye house where they applied a “secret recipe” blend of colors to the complete batch.


Twenty vendors and one month later, Crabtree had perfected the Pan Am uniform.  While the uniform remains consistent episode to episode, Crabtree keeps busy preparing the costumes worn by the men and women of Pan Am during their off hours.


To differentiate the personalities of the main female characters, color palettes and fashion trends were employed.  For the character of Laura (played by Margot Robbie), pastel colors such as baby blues and pale yellows and pinks are applied to clothing inspired by Grace Kelly and model Jean Shrimpton.  Crabtree also keeps the age and psychological development of the characters in mind as she’s preparing the outfits.  Since the series takes place in 1963 just prior to the woman’s liberation movement, she incorporates deviations from the classic period pieces.  Christina Ricci’s Maggie tends to incorporate diverse styles and bold colors into her wardrobe, a reflection of her free spirit and youthful energy.


 “These actors are portraying characters who are 20 to 25, so that energy is really important or else you just have a vintage piece of clothing,’ said Crabtree.  “They rely on me to create the character, then they embody that character when they are in the clothing.”


Crabtree based a lot of her research for the everyday fashions of the Pan Am stewardesses on periodicals from the time, such as Life Magazine, library research, and culling through family photos.  In addition to designing many pieces for the show, she also obtains articles through far reaching sources such as eBay, costume houses, thrift stores, and the collections of friends and family.  A point of challenge for Crabtree is not only providing the period clothing worn by the off duty stewardesses, but also assuring accuracy in what was worn in foreign countries that the Pan Am crew travel to.


“We could go anywhere, so this is a greater challenge in terms of the expansiveness of the project,” said Crabtree.  “You have to get each country right in a period way.  History was going on within the clothing.  It’s all really important.”

To obtain the most accurate look, particularly the Pan Am uniforms, the show’s actresses must wear the undergarments worn at that time; full slips and girdles, garter belts with stockings, and bras originally designed by Jean Paul Gaultier.  These undergarments are thicker and more structured than what’s worn today.  Crabtree started hearing from the actresses that these items made them stand straighter and helped them get into the mood of the period.

While the male actors didn’t encounter the challenge of undergarments, the construction of their clothing also had an impact to their comfort and character development.

“They have to wear trousers that are higher up on the waistline, which was really weird for them at first because they’re young men,” said Crabtree.  “(Now) when they get a low waist trouser they feel off a little bit when they’re walking.”


Crabtree isn’t surprised that the contemporary audience is excited by the fashions of the sixties.   She notes that classic girdles are even making a come-back, with online bloggers indicating retailers that sell items similar to what is worn in the show.  She feels the classic silhouettes speak to a generation where “anything goes.”

“I think that the sixties were a time of hope and a time of not knowing whereas today there’s a bit of social fatigue,” said Crabtree.   “In the clothing the difference was that there was a bit of mystery and not giving all the information away.  Ladies dressed like ladies, and the men were gentlemen.  That air of mystery I think is what young people certainly in America and Europe are curious about because we’ve gone so far the other way.”