Perhaps you’ve spotted the Air France winged seahorse at some time or other. But have you ever wondered how or why the airline picked this intriguing icon? Well, it was the other way around: the icon came first, before the airline even had a name. Let’s explore this fascinating bit of aviation history.
The Winged Seahorse Present at the Birth of Air France
On the momentous day of 7 October 1933, a new airline, bearing the name Air France, was born out of the amalgamation of five leading French airlines of the period: Air Orient, Air Union, Société Générale de Transports Aériens, the Compagnie Internationale de Navigation Aérienne, and Aéropostale. Louis Allègre, the director-general of the newly formed airline held a press conference at Le Bourget airport, home of many aviation firsts.. Allègre appealed to the journalists in attendance for assistance in devising a name that would resonate internationally. “Air France”, suggested by Georges Raffalovich from the Journal, was endorsed unanimously. On the tarmac, the accompanying aircraft fleet, poised for its debut, exhibited the emblem of the emerging national airline — the winged seahorse.
This symbol was a carryover from one of Air France’s founding airlines, Air Orient, which served the Far East routes.
From Capsized to International Icon: The Legend of the Air France Winged Seahorse
The winged seahorse is an artistic fusion of symbols. The head is a Pegasus — the Greek mythological flying horse — and the tail is Annam’s dragon — the icon of the imperial family of Vietnam. Combined, they form a seahorse with wings. At the time, there was a raging debate over the superiority between airplanes and seaplanes. This mythical creature, proficient in conquering both the sky and the waves, was the ideal representation for the new airline. It embodies the spirit of flight: speeding through the skies to traverse the world’s oceans and bring the continents closer.
Legend has it that aviator Maurice Noguès happened upon this enigmatic creature while stranded after a shipwreck in the Bay of Naples in 1928. Perhaps the capsized man interpreted a seahorse’s dorsal fin as wings, but the icon took flight.
Whatever its mythic origins, this emblem merges notions of power and speed, the elements of air and water. Consequently, it aptly mirrors the values and aspirations of Air France. Since its debut, the winged seahorse has achieved status as the universally acknowledged emblem for the airline.
Over the decades, this winged seahorse has been incorporated into the visual aesthetics of the brand. They included Air France’s promotional posters, airplane fuselages, tableware, and staff uniforms. The winged seahorse’s colors and characteristics continually evolve, enhancing its gracefulness. Still, it firmly maintains its position as the historic emblem of France’s national airline. In its more recent stylized versions, it signifies the world of La Première, offering passengers the most exclusive travel experience with Air France.
Atop the First Air France Flight Attendant Uniform
Air France first recruited flight attendants ‘stewardesses’ in 1945. On their first flights, they wore no distinguishing signs. This confused passengers. Attention from people who looked like fellow passengers surprised them.
In 1946, Air France entrusted the esteemed Georgette Renal fashion house to design the first-ever Air France flight attendant uniform. Their approach favored a harmonious blend of comfort and durability, a testament to their ability to cater to practical needs while creating visually appealing designs. The wardrobe they crafted included an array of basic items including a petrol-blue suit, a poplin blouse, a summer dress, a felt beret, and a coat.
Of particular note was the distinctive felt beret, adorned with the emblem of a winged seahorse. A nod to the integration of sea and sky in air travel, it became an iconic part of the uniform. The 1954 update by Georgette de Trèze came in a winter and summer version.
Prominent in the Airline’s First International Campaigns
From the start, Air France positioned itself as a global carrier, advertising its vast network. The message was reflected through whimsical imagery of celestial skies, fluffy clouds, and global maps. These charming illustrations were crafted by prominent poster artists of their era, including Dransy, Lucien Boucher, and Roger De Valerio.
Seeing the positive effect these posters had on its global brand image, Air France allowed its designers carte blanche. This granted them the creative liberty to freely express themselves. The only requirement was that they use four fundamental elements: the vast expanse of the sky, an artistic representation of an airplane, the company name ‘Air France’, and the company’s iconic symbol, the winged seahorse.
Air France enlisted the talents of many prolific poster artists such as Raymond Savignac and Albert Solon. In a pioneering move within the industry, the airline also turned to established artists from various disciplines. It engaged the likes of Jean Cocteau, Victor Vasarely, Jean Picart Le Doux, and Tabuchi.
Air France Winged Seahorse Tableware
In 1966, Air France commissioned renowned artist Jean Picart Le Doux to completely redesign the tableware for its first-class cabin. The artist reproduced Air France’s historic winged seahorse emblem and transposed it to the tableware, evoking an airplane taking off. Air France invited internationally-renowned French manufacturers to collaborate in the design of this fine tableware collection. Used in service until 2000, it included porcelain crockery from the Bernardaud and Haviland factories.
This fine tableware is available for purchase as part of the Air France exclusive 90-year anniversary collection.
The iconic tableware also inspired one of the dresses featured in the Air France 90th-anniversary dress collection at Galleries Lafayette. Air France commissioned Xavier Ronze, the maestro behind costume design at the Paris Opera Ballet, to craft unique dresses that reflected the brand’s history. It features five iconic dresses bridging past elegance with modern design. These masterpieces are on display at the Galeries Lafayette Paris Haussmann from September 28 to October 10, 2023.