You always knew that Virgin Atlantic must have required its female flight attendants to wear makeup. They always looked so polished that any other explanation just wouldn’t have made sense. But it never really registered until this week, when the airline ditched the rule.
Where once cabin crew were reprimanded if their lipstick didn’t match their siren-red jacket, now they can go for neutral shades or – if they are really daring – wear no lipstick at all, like some kind of social worker.
The curve of fashion is against them, unfortunately. For a decade, that stereotypical air-hostess look was “very dated, and almost looked like fancy-dress,” says the makeup artist Sarah Cherry. “Now, heavy makeup is coming back into fashion, with all the Instagram contouring looks.” But the force of feminism is with Virgin Atlantic, since – as a general rule – if you wouldn’t ask a man to do it, asking a woman is sexist. (Unless it’s listening.)
Rules relating to a woman’s appearance always seem dodgy, with the notable exception of jobs in showbiz. For example, I would have absolutely no problem if Liza Minnelli had had blue eyeshadow written into her contract at any time in history; indeed, we would all have been a lot better off. I was recently told that Sky Sports supposedly has an unenforced ban on presenters wearing red lipstick, which set off an insistent “Why? No, but really, why?” in my head. But it doesn’t sound like naked objectification, since the separation of performance turns everyone, male and female, into a consenting object of the overall creation. Yes, even on Sky Sports. Which probably is quite creative, if you watch it.
The follow-on from that is, as soon as you treat an employee’s appearance as your business, you are turning him or her (although, let’s be honest, it’s always a her) into a performer, a spectacle: so she simultaneously is a flight attendant and also dressing up as a flight attendant. (We’re just talking about makeup, hair and accessories here, by the way: uniforms are a whole other ball game of authority and control resting on deindividuation.) A waitress dressed in black and white is a waitress, but one who has to cut a blocky fringe and draw on a beauty spot is also acting out someone’s Marvel-inspired idea of what a waitress should look like. So even if you were to let slide the innate sexism of treating women as objects, it’s still a problem that you are effectively making them work two jobs: the job itself, and the sexualised theatre of the job.
Virgin Atlantic has made the right call: it’s the wrong century to get up in women’s grills with heavily freighted lipstick rules. I still have beef with the cultural impact of Richard Branson, but this is a welcome baby step.