The Pilot and Her Flight Jacket

Early History

Much of what we wear owes its allegiance to military history. This is particularly the case for the Flight and Bomber Jackets. While it used to be a heavy-duty aviation garment, the classic silhouette is instantly recognisable. But how did it become one of the most iconic military items of all time for both military personnel as well as civilians?

World War I

The origin traces back to World War I. While flight via airplane was possible, it still did not look much like air travel today. The most significant difference was the open cockpit, that was subject to constant cooling at high altitudes and airflow at high speed. Military pilots had enough to worry about without freezing temperatures, such as distraction and shaky movements of the human body.

In the beginning of the 20th century leather was the strongest material option to combat the harsh elements, hence, long heavy-duty leather coats was the weapon of choice. Royal Flying Corps in Belgium and France would wear those in 1915 during World War I.

Not long after, the American military took notice of these practical garments. Once the U.S. Army established “The Aviation Clothing Board” in September 1917, it became clear that these would be an important part of the uniform to implement. The army decided to issue leather flight jackets of their own.

Horse-leather became a lot cheaper as the 1910’s wore on into the 20’s.  People were selling their carriages to buy cars, and the militaries were even getting rid of their cavalry horses. But also cow and goat was used and later sheep for inner lining in cold weather uniforms (CWU).

Inter Wars

Leslie Irvin first designed and manufactured the classic sheepskin flying jacket. In 1926 he set up a manufacturing company in the United Kingdom, and became the main supplier of flying jackets to the Royal Air Force during most of World War II. However, the demand during the early years of the war was so great, that the Irvin company engaged subcontractors, which explains the slight variations of design and colour that can be seen in early production Irvin flying jackets.

By the 1930s, the world’s militaries were moving away from open cockpits.  They might open the canopy for takeoff and landing, but the bulky leather coveralls or long coats were no longer needed.  The US Army Air Corps, the US Navy, and Britain’s RAF all developed standardized flying jackets.  These have come down as the “bomber jackets” still popular today, and are still the primary styles available to the open-cockpit aviator.

Aviators in A-1 flight jackets
The A-1 jacket was the first officially specified and adopted flight jacket by military. Although they are comparatively simple to later models, it’s value and prestige at the time of its use was enormous.
B-17 Crew in A-2 Flight Jackets
The A-2 is probably the most iconic and sought for of all flight jackets out there. Developed post WWII, the A-2 Flight Jacket arrived in the early 1930s and was officially adopted in 1931.
The Irvin Bomber Jacket
Les Irvin designed the classic Irvin jacket worn by the Royal Air Force during WWII. B-3 was introduced a bit later with an almost identical design.

World War II

Was designed for ground personnel working under harsh weather conditions. It later became a useful clothing addition for pilots alongside their A-2 jackets.
The B-6 jacket was first produced at around 1943. It came as an improved version of the B-3 being relatively more light weight.
The B-7 arctic parka was produced between 1941 to 1942 during WWII. Due to the high cost of producing the jackets the continued production could not be sustained.
Flight Jacket M442
M422 was developed in the late 30s and is often mistakenly referred to as the G-1. The pilots who flew the P-40 shark mouth fighter aircrafts were provided with the M422a jackets.
B-10 Bomber
The B-10 jacket was first produced in 1943 using cloth materials, but with a collar and lining made in alpaca fur.
Marilyn Monroe and B-15 Pilot
The B-15 came as some sort of alternative to the flight suits and became the dawn of synthetic flight jackets.

Post War

Top Gun G-1
If there ever was a celebrity in flying jackets, the G-1 is it. It has been authorized wear for Naval Aviators almost continuously since the 1930s.
The 1940’s and 50’s brought a few changes to the bomber. This new MA-1 brought a few tweaks with a knit collar and orange liner.

The Bomber en Civil

By the mid-1950’s, bombers began to make their transition from military to civilian life. Following the Korean and Vietnam wars, people began to appreciate how warm the MA-1 was, even on the ground.

As more civilians began adopting the bomber, changes were made to better suit a customer base with fewer functional needs. For instance, the previously wool collar and cuffs were switched out for an acrylic knit (so as to prevent moth damage). A non quilted liner was substituted in, and water-repellent treatments were included for those who lived in damper climates.

By the late 60’s through the 80’s, the bomber began crossing into a more trendy “fashion” territory. The jacket was perfect for the mild winters in Europe and Australia, and it became a highly popular fashion item for those associated with various countercultures. Ironically, the bomber transitioned from a uniform to a symbol of rebellion in places like Europe, the U.S. and Japan.

The jacket was a big part of the punk movement, often paired with t-shirts, skinny jeans, and Doc Martens. Jackets dyed in bright, acid colors were especially popular, and created a style that was much more distinctive than its traditional military counterpart.

The bomber’s popularity exploded in the 80’s, as it was featured in several hit films of the decade. Two notable examples were Steve McQueen’s MA-1 in The Hunter, and of course, Harrison Ford’s A-2 in Indiana Jones. Additionally, Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun helped to cement the G-1 into popular fashion. The combination of celebrity promotion and the fact that the jacket fit so well into the quintessential 1980’s wardrobe made it a classic piece of the decade.

The Bomber en Vogue

Today, the bomber jacket still remains in fashion. It is frequently worn by celebrities such as Kanye West, and re-interpreted into more modern versions by various brands. It seems every label, from high-end such as Raf Simons and Rick Owens, to fast fashion like H&M has created its own take on this piece.