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Then & Now

At the Height of Fashion

When the Space Needle opened at the height of the space race in 1962 for the Seattle World’s Fair, an all-female team of elevator operators brought millions of visitors to the top. The “Sky Pilotesses,” as they were known, wore smartly-designed ensembles designed by Joan Nykreim, an elevator operator herself. From her vantage at the elevator door, Joan Nykreim witnessed history-in-the-making.

Functional and Fashionable

In advance of The Needle’s opening day, Nykreim took one look at the proposed elevator operator uniform - and gagged. The ugly design was an orange and gold flight suit, inspired by 1960s astronauts. “She was not going to be caught dead in that,” said Thea Maia, Nykreim’s daughter. Nykreim was tall, beautiful, and stylish—a former Seafair Princess and first runner-up for Miss Washington.

So, she took the design into her own hands and re-imagined the entire uniform for the modern female form—a coincidental homage to the Space Needle. Architect Victor Steinbrueck designed the wasp-waisted tower after “The Feminine One,” a sculpture inspired by Syvilla Fort, a pioneering Black ballet dancer.

When the Space Needle opened for the World’s Fair, the elevator operators wore a white collared shirt, navy skirt with a matching jacket, and a red neckerchief, complete with a bright red cape.

To celebrate the Space Needle’s 60th anniversary, Joan Nykreim’s original elevator operator uniform is on display at Space Base gift shop.

The City at Her Feet

The life of a Space Needle elevator operator was glamorous! During the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Nykreim encountered the likes of Bruce Lee, Carol Channing, George Burns and John Wayne. She was even an extra in the Elvis Presley movie “It Happened at the World's Fair.”

“The Needle was pivotal for her,” said her daughter Thea Maia, reflecting on her mother’s experience. Nykreim met her husband at the Space Needle and raised her family on the stories from her time working the World’s Fair. “It means everything to us,” said Maia. Joan Nykreim passed away in 2022 and a written biography of her life is in the works.

60 Years of Innovation

Gone are the days of red capes and neckerchiefs, but Space Needle Team Members are still fashion forward thanks to another female designer. In September 2022, the Space Needle launched custom Luly Yang uniforms that incorporate history with modern sensibilities, comfort, and relaxed style.

“Respecting the architecture and history of Seattle’s most recognizable landmark played a huge role in the design of the new uniform collection,” said Luly Yang. “It was important for us to pay homage to the building’s silhouette, architectural lines - and even blueprints - to create the shapes and patterns of each garment.”

As Yang looked over the original designs—one woman to another—the delicate details and versatility stood out. “My first thought is that they are simply darling,” Yang remarked.

From 1962 to 2022, the creative, curious, and innovative female fashion designers of the Space Needle still stand out, just like the landmark herself.