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Why do pilots wear white shirts?

Pilot and flight attendant uniforms: The meaning behind the outfit

What does an airline expect of its pilots? Competence, confidence, professionalism, calm, leadership – and these are also the characteristics that an airline wants to project in the uniform it chooses for its pilots.

The clean-cut, conservative look, with a white shirt, tie and cap and a buttoned blazer, suggests someone who knows what they’re about.

The modern commercial airline pilot’s uniform has a distinct nautical cut to it, as opposed to one derived from other branches of the military, but it wasn’t always so.

In the earliest days of passenger air travel, what commercial pilots wore was the same outfit of flying boots, leather bomber jackets, silk scarves and gloves as worn by the flying aces of WWI, required to handle the tough conditions pilots faced in unheated cockpits.

Then, in the 1930s, Pan Am began operating Sikorsky flying boats and the airline adopted the smart, tailored uniform of naval officers.

Pan Am set the template for a successful airline operation and – in this as in many other respects – other airlines simply copied what Pan Am was doing. Although Pan Am’s double-breasted jacket with brass buttons is no longer as common as it once was, tailored navy or black uniforms are still the order of the day.

As with naval officers, the stripes on a pilot’s uniform denote the rank of the wearer. There are slight variations from one airline to another, but a captain gets four stripes on their sleeves and epaulettes. Three stripes denote a first officer and two denote a second officer. One stripe identifies a trainee pilot. Gold is the most common colour for stripes, but silver and some other colours are also used.

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Pilots will also usually wear a winged badge; wings with a star in a semi-circle of laurel leaves for a pilot, wings with a star for a first officer and wings alone for those with one or two uniform stripes.

Pilots’ uniforms change with fashion, and the changes are not always appreciated in the cockpit.

When Qantas unveiled a new uniform for its pilots back in 2016, it issued a 23-page guidebook stipulating how its pilots should present themselves while in uniform. The list included never wearing a backpack, never drinking alcohol or chewing gum, and refraining from smoking in public view.

Earrings for female pilots only, and plain round pearl, silver, gold or diamond studs. No beards or flamboyant moustaches. Blazers buttoned up and only abandoned when the temperature tops 27C.

The new uniform also reverted to the white cap not seen on the heads of Qantas pilots since four decades earlier – another reference to the flying boat era.

Hats for pilots are becoming less common, although most airlines require them as a way of identifying who’s in command.

Hats are optional for American Airlines and United Airlines pilots, but Delta still tags its pilots with an old-school look, with double-breasted, brass-buttoned blazers, and hats a must-wear item.

Although Delta will roll out a new uniform for some 60,000 uniformed employees in May 2018, with a casual look crafted by popular lifestyle brand Lands End, the airline’s pilots’ uniforms are unchanged.

One uniform that breaks practically every rule in the book was that worn by Virgin America pilots (which recently became part of Alaska Airlines). Designed by Banana Republic, the uniform consists of a grey shirt, no tie, no hat and no blazer. The only rank identifier is the gold stripes on the epaulettes.

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As opposed to the sober, conservative uniforms it requires of its flight crew, airlines are more inclined to show off their airline’s personality and sense of style in the uniforms they choose for their cabin crew, often using high end European-based design houses.

China’s Hainan Airlines chose Paris-based Lawrence Xu to design a sleek, svelte style for its cabin crew, with overcoats in dove grey for the gents, cheongsams for the women and mandarin collars.

Virgin Atlantic used Vivienne Westwood to come up with a tailored look with accents in the airline’s signature red, while Ettore Bilotta created a show-stopper for Etihad Airways, with hourglass shapes for female cabin crew in chocolate brown with royal purple touches, and a classic trench coat for both sexes.

The national traditions of the airline’s base also play a role. Thus the draped scarf worn by Emirates’ female cabin crew, the pink and purple silks with sashes worn by Thai Airways crew, and the bula wear prints seen aboard Fiji Airways.

The sarong kebaya has been such a trademark for the predominantly female cabin crew of Singapore Airlines that it hasn’t changed for decades. This is also one uniform that clearly signifies rank. Blue is the most common colour, worn by the airlines’ flight stewardesses. Next up the ladder is green, for leading stewardesses. Red is worn by the chief stewardess and burgundy is for an in-flight supervisor.

Most airlines apply strict protocols to what their cabin crew may or may not wear while on duty, and Singapore Airlines sets the bar high. No highlights or colouring in the hair, short hair for males, eyeshadow in either blue or brown only and no dangly earrings. Lipstick colours must come from a narrow palette of reds and watches must be small and simple.

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Do uniforms matter? Just ask Frank Abagnale, celebrated American confidence trickster, forger and imposter depicted in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can. As a teenager, Abagnale’s father told him «The world believes your clothes,» and young Frank took the advice to heart.

He swindled Pan Am into giving him a pilot’s uniform and spent years conning his way into cockpits, flying more than a million miles on over 250 flights, staying free at hotels and dining on Pan Am’s tab, with absolutely no pilot’s qualifications.

Why choose a performance pilot shirt?

Non Iron Pilot Shirt

In a nutshell, performance pilot shirts use modern, technical fabrics to create a garment that is more practical, aesthetically pleasing and more durable than traditional uniforms.

What are the benefits

Less time ironing:

When it comes down to selecting a shirt from the wardrobe, most aviators will avoid shirts that require laborious ironing. The high-tech materials used in performance pilot shirts allow for minimal ironing, making them an attractive proposition for busy pilots. Some shirts, such as our R series, require no ironing at all – a game changer for busy commercial pilots.

This makes sense – on average we spend four hours ironing our shirts per month. With lives only getting busier, and many pilots having to balance a busy roster with other commitments, having a shirt that saves you half a working day per month is a huge asset.

Resistant to creasing:

Pilot shirts constructed from traditional materials look great as you step out of the front door but will begin to crease up as a result of the rigours of a pilot’s day. Constant reaching for the overhead panel, carrying shoulder bags, moving around in seat and removing your shirt for rest (for long haul pilots) will cause the garment to crease up over the shift. The aesthetics of the shirt therefore decrease over time, leading to some aviators looking somewhat unkempt at the end of a shift.

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Due to the material composition, performance pilot uniforms tend to be far more resistant to creasing, meaning the shirt continues to look as good as when you put it on for the first time.


Due to the use of advanced synthetics, performance pilot shirts tend to last. These fabrics also are more stain resistant, so you lose less shirts to coffee spills and pen marks than you would using traditional shirts.

Subtle Stretch:

Using modern performance fabrics often allows for more stretch to be built into pilot shirts. Contrary to popular belief, elasticity is not built into pilot shirts so that aviators can achieve a ‘spray on’ look. Rather, stretch fabrics make for greater comfort when reaching or moving around in seat, without having to select a shirt that is oversized.

What’s more, this elastic makes the garment more forgiving for different body shapes, allowing the shirts to fit better. For instance, if a pilot has particularly broad shoulders in relation to his collar size, a performance shirt would accommodate this more effectively than a shirt made out of traditional fabric.

Of course, this doesn’t remove the need to select the correct fit, with most pilot shirt manufacturers offering slim-fit, tapered and fitted versions of their pilot shirts.

Brilliant white:

For all their positive qualities, traditional textiles such as cotton tend to fade over time, leading to a greying or yellowing after years of use, limiting the life cycle of your pilot shirts. Conversely, performance fabrics start at a brilliant white, and fade considerably less quickly, meaning you keep that ‘out the box’ feeling for longer.

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Less Transparency:

Due to the materials used, performance fabrics tend to let less light through than their traditional counterparts, meaning that you don’t necessarily need to wear undershirts under your pilot shirts. Likewise, if you choose to wear undershirts anyway, they are less likely to show through performance pilot shirt fabrics.

Performance Fitted Pilot Shirt made in the UK

What’s the catch?

Traditionally, people have avoided non-natural fabrics from the perspective that they are hot, sweaty and uncomfortable on the skin. Indeed, with many low-quality pilot shirt manufacturers striving to save cost, many cheap nylon or polyester shirts do just that.

However, the techniques that textile manufacturers are using to construct fabrics has modernised greatly, with some blends of synthetics now ‘bucking the trend’, no longer having the negative properties of these cheap, antiquated synthetic fabrics.

It is therefore now possible to build high-tech shirts that have all the benefits of a performance shirt, whilst still maintaining a cotton-like softness on the skin.


Though it might take some time to filter through, performance pilot shirts are the future. From an airline perspective, the shirts last longer making them more cost effective. What’s more, their pilots maintain their appearance throughout the day. From a pilot’s perspective, these shirts are more comfortable, stylish and practical than traditional shirts, saving individuals precious hours per week.

For those who are interested in trying out a performance pilot shirt, check out the R Series – a true game changer for pilots worldwide. As an introductory offer, these shirts are currently 20% off with the discount code FUTURE20.

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