Virgin Atlantic crew no longer have to wear make-up – but it's hardly a victory for feminism

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Anna Brech
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Flight attendants for Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic has changed its grooming policy for female air attendants: but why do these rules exist at all?

Virgin Atlantic has announced that its female crew no longer have to wear make-up, in a move the airline giant describes as “a significant change”. 

Female air attendants also now have the choice to wear trousers, in place of its signature short red skirts. 

“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,” says Virgin Atlantic spokesman Mark Anderson. 

There’s been a lot of fanfare about this shift in grooming policy. But there’s a wave of realisation, too: a bit like discovering that women weren’t allowed credit cards until 1980

Hurrah they’ve made the right move. But what took them so long? And crucially, why aren’t more airlines following suit?

The idea that women should be obliged to wear make-up for her career in this day and age seems ludicrous. 

And, as employment lawyers point out, it’s dancing a fine line with UK equality laws. 

“Generally speaking employers can require staff to follow a dress and appearance code that may be different for men and women as long as the standards are the same and it is applied equally,” Fiona Martin, director at Martin Searle Solicitors, tells

“Unless the wearing of makeup is a genuine occupational requirement, such as modelling, wearing make-up should be optional.

“For instance, if an employer, such as an airline, requires female cabin crew to wear extensive make-up, to avoid treating one sex less favourably than the other the same stringent standard of ‘grooming’ should apply to male cabin crew.”

This may be the case for an employer like British Airways, where female crew are required to wear a minimum of lipstick and blusher.

But even if male and female crew are subject to parallel standards of presentation, the question is, why do cosmetics fall under that heading for women? 

Is female make-up really needed to meet BA’s requirement that staff “look immaculate at all times”? Or is the demand for it perpetuating an outdated trope around women, beauty and youth?

The truth is, just like high heels, make-up has nothing to do with creating a “professional image” at work. 

Flight attendants fall into a category of public-facing roles that value smart presentation. That means brushed hair, clean shoes and ironed clothes are a given. 

But the need for women to put on lipstick, just to “look good”? No, and it would be disingenuous of any airline employer to suggest otherwise. 

Take Emirates, whose strict grooming criteria demands that female air crew wear “Emirates red” lipstick and liner, black or beige eyeshadow and varnish approved by the airline’s Imaging and Grooming Department (yes, really). 

Somewhere here, the desire for uniformity has spilled over into make-up micromanagement specifically geared at women. And it’s a confusion in semantics that is repeated by most other airlines. 

For too long, make-up has been used as a weapon to judge women. We wear too much, too little or – gasp – we put it on on the bus.

Focusing on make-up in a job, whatever that job may be, places all the emphasis on misplaced notions of female beauty. 

Whether or not a woman applies a slick of mascara has little bearing on good presentation, and even less relevance to skill. Instead, it’s just another criteria with which to undermine us; and it has zero place in our careers.

Lead image: Getty


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.