Polar Wear KLM

KLM’s polar suits were designed with the Arctic in mind. Image via MAI/KLM foto historisch archief

Once upon a time, KLM prepared passengers for the dire possibility of a polar crash landing with outerwear that resembled a baggy space suit.

From the stylish aubergine flight-attendant uniforms Didiet Maulana designed for Garuda Indonesia to Laird Kay’s Very Plane Clothes fashion line, the air industry has seen some iconic runway moments. Last year, in an article about voyages to the extremities of Earth, the New York Times unearthed another, more curious example of airline apparel: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines’ “polar suit.”

The image of the suit was actually first published by the newspaper in a 1973 article, but the getup dates back further. In 1958, KLM launched a route from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Anchorage, Alaska, and then to Tokyo, Japan. Polar suits were included on all Douglas DC-7 planes making the journey above the Arctic Circle. The suit is also seen in KLM’s collection of historical photographs stored at the Maria Austria Institute in Amsterdam. In one photograph, a well-bundled group is sporting the thickly padded ensembles (some of which have a metallic outer layer), standing in front of a DC-10-30, among a stockpile of more suits.

“The polar suit was developed by KLM, by the Flight Technical Affairs department at Flight Operations in cooperation with the Medical Service,” says Frido Ogier, senior editor of Corporate Communications AMS/CO at KLM’s Heritage Centre. Ogier made it clear that the suit wasn’t making any kind of a fashion statement: “The design is purely functional. It had to protect passengers and crew against the cold in the polar area, in case of an emergency landing.”

Passengers traveling Amsterdam–Anchorage–Tokyo would find a book-sized package under their seats containing the seven-ounce polar suit along with a swimming vest. The polar suit was woven from synthetic fibers and featured a layer of aluminum foil lining in the interior and exterior of the garment. These layers were designed to trap heat, ensuring the wearer could maintain an appropriate body temperature for survival.

Besides polar suits, KLM’s DC-7 Arctic flights featured additional equipment for polar emergencies. Supplies included a cozy group sleeping bag, sunglasses to prevent snow blindness, cookware and candles, and even a rifle to defend against polar bear attacks and hunt wild game in the event of a protracted stay in the Arctic tundra.

Fortunately for KLM passengers, the polar suit is out of commission and now only exists as a footnote in airline fashion history. “As far as we know, the suit was never used,” says Ogier. “We don’t have these suits on board anymore because we no longer fly over the North Pole. Instead, we take a shorter route over Russia. That wasn’t possible in 1973.”

“Polar Wear” was originally published in the 10.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.