This month I read Balloonmania Belles by Sharon Wright and am happy to say this was a great read! Much of the book falls within the FFF timeline of 1880-1930, although the book begins in 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers unleashed the first balloon carrying living beings (animals) into the air successfully in France.
The book follows the lives of Balloonmania’s earliest and most notable flying females. Each chapter is devoted to one or two main belles and their stories are interspersed within a broader historical context. I appreciated that this book was able to provide a lot of information on these ladies that is otherwise very difficult to procure, as there is no comprehensive guide that concentrates on female aeronautical pioneers. I wish the book included even more images of the women it describes, but in doing my own search, I know these are difficult to find if they exist at all.
Flying in the 1900s was not for the faint of heart. It was relatively so new, the Wright brothers having just sustained the first heavier-than-air aircraft in flight in 1903, and required such skill that crashes were commonplace. The cockpits were uncovered in the open air (no seatbelt) so if the plane were to flip upside-down unexpectedly, pilots could fall out. Not surprisingly, because of the risk and skill involved in piloting a plane, this was considered to be a man’s domain although there were still brave women undeterred.
Not likely to be hired as pilots, adventurous women would often initiate their own air shows and stunt flying, called “barnstorming.” As you can imagine, at that time, not only did spectators want to see the death-defying stunts but also to watch them performed by a female pilot, or aviatrix was an added novelty. As the 20th century progressed, female pilots evolved from barnstorming stunts to achieving new records in flight. Throughout the Femme Fashion Forward period (up until 1930) flying was still dangerous in many regards, and it took certain amount of courage that few possessed.
These women were brave and defied the norm, but often did so with an irresistible flare. Pushing the boundaries of what women were believed capable of, and perhaps with an enviable level of confidence and bravery, it’s no wonder many others looked to them as inspiration. Here are 5 women in particular that you may not have heard of, but at that time were widely known for their skills in the air. From a fashion history perspective, I think it is important to note what these women were wearing, which was often a blend of clothing from the “male” flying domain and womenswear.