Fashion and the Armed Forces make for interesting bedfellows, but it would be a blind folly to overlook the direct influences military design has had on the world of culture a la mode. The iconic bomber jacket is one of military history’s foremost grants to style culture, the evolution from WWI protection for fighter pilots against intense high-altitude environments to anchoring Kanye West pop-up shops, traverses literal atmospheres of style and aerodynamic science.
Once again, form and function coincide to craft a fashion staple of timeless design. Style and utility run in tandem, particularly with the Bombardier “Bomber” jacket. The fighter pilot jacket traces its origins back to 1915, when French and Belgian military units designed coats tailored to the specific requirements of pilots during World War I. Akin to denim and the moto jacket, the bomber jacket’s core function was durability and protection for the wearer against extreme elemental conditions.
The bomber jacket’s necessity predicated upon protection and mobility during high-altitude flights, and the need for custom outerwear was particularly crucial for early fighter pilots whose warplanes were not equipped with covered cockpits. The first fleet of bomber jackets were long heavy-duty pieces worn by the French and Belgian Royal Flying Corps. The coats were made of leather, believed to be the most durable fabric of the time.
It wasn’t until 1932 that the practical marvel made its way Stateside, when the U.S. Army Air Corps released their archetypal A-2 men’s leather bomber jacket, establishing the frame most synonymous with flight jackets today.
The A-2 men’s bomber jacket is significantly shorter than the long leather flight coats of the Royal Corps, with wool-ribbed cinching at the waist designed to give the pilot a snug fit enabling mobility during combat. These early bomber jacket outer shells were traditionally made of horsehide, cowhide, or possibly goat, featuring two pockets complimenting the front, with some models adding additional sheep skin lining for an extra layer of warmth in elevated altitudes.
The bomber jacket’s first form features core elements synonymous with the signature design, but the more common variations we see on urban streets and runways today incorporated modifications indirectly evolving the world of fashion alongside innovations in aviation. The A-2 jacket is renowned for its durability and versatility. Since it is more closely aligned with the lean build of a moto jacket than the heavier military bulk of later bomber jacket designs, it is easier to style as a go-to outerwear piece.
The A-2 is a sleeper staple piece for any modern man’s wardrobe because of its niche design: it echoes the rebelliousness of a Schott Perfecto leather moto jacket, with slight allusions to the bulkier nylon flight jackets of 1980s Hollywood fame, while maintaining a distinct space of its own understated style. The jacket’s cinched waist not only allowed for more room in the cockpit, but also accentuated the high-waisted pants that were commonplace among men’s fashion at the time.
Style Guide: The A-2 men’s leather bomber jacket pairs well with high-waisted trousers, possibly pleated (possibly not), an Oxford shirt to accentuate the wraparound collar, and a pair of buffed leather cap-toe boots to round out a pilot-on-holiday look. Add a mahogany leather-band watch and aviator glasses for top-flight flair.
The next iteration of the bomber jacket debuted in the 1940s. The B-15s stepped up the style modifications, featuring a fur-lined collar and leather straps to harness flight gear and oxygen masks. Warplanes were able to operate at higher altitudes, which meant pilots were exposed to colder temperatures. The B-15 design is noticeably bulkier than the A-2, and carries more of the signature East Coast look synonymous with contemporary styles. The “pen zip” adornment and slash pockets, paired with the now-cotton outer shell, exude a neat sense of undercover authority.
Style Guide: The B-15’s updated outer shell makes the cotton bomber jacket an easier addition to a contemporary wardrobe. The added bulk beneath the muted standard navy tone make the cotton bomber jacket a go-to for temperamental East Coast autumn climates, as an alternative to the A-2’s “leather weather” style. The cotton bomber carries a more understated appeal, echoing an academician campus style, pairing seamlessly with clean dark denim, cuffed at the ankle, and canvas or leather sneakers to complete the base layered look.
Bomber jackets made their street premiere in the wake of the MA-1 debut. The MA-1 is in a class of its own pop culture royalty, most notably establishing the nylon bomber jacket’s place in cinema iconography with its Hollywood cameos. Beyond nylon, the updated design traded fur-lining for a knit collar, and added a reversible orange lining to the interior. The modifications maintain the signature silhouette, but its details gave the bomber jacket modern legs to enter civilian world of street style by way of subculture.
Akin to denim and moto jackets, leather bomber jackets and nylon bomber jackets both saw cultural narratives unfold within the appeal of natural innovation when style and utility meet in the form of fashion, by tailored function.
The men’s bomber jacket gained early social footing just above the worn bootstraps of 1960s and 1970s era British punk style. Across the pond, the devil-may-care urban aggro aesthetic brought the pilot style underground, pairing the sage nylon bomber with cuffed skinny stonewash jeans, tucked-in tees, and a set of Doc Martens — not a frill to be found. Civilian distributors began taking contracts for bomber jackets around the 1960s, giving the piece room to breathe overseas, as Europe and Australia adopted the style for pure functionality during their mild winter seasons. The bomber jacket’s aesthetic versatility gained traction with it’s foray into the wide world of styling beyond the narrow confines of a fighter jet cockpit.
From subculture to the Hollywood scene, the bomber jacket saw a string of cinematic features giving it sartorial range within the burgeoning world of global style.
Most famously, the A-2 men’s leather jacket defined the imagery of 1986’s blockbuster, Top Gun. Authoritarian uniformity of military-issued outerwear took on the individualistic drive of late-80s American culture with Tom Cruise’s patch-laden take on the simple chestnut signature piece.
It seems no vintage Americana sartorial staple is truly established in the world of cultural iconography, though, without a co-starring feature alongside King of Cool, Steve McQueen –– and the bomber jacket has receipts on ice. The MA-1 sage green nylon men’s bomber jacket made it’s most prominent on-screen McQueen feature in 1980’s The Hunter where McQueen again blended his own cool rebelliousness with the structured authority of the military-issue aesthetic.
Harrison Ford rounded out the bomber jacket’s 80s introduction into cinematic iconography with his custom designed auburn A-2-inspired leather bomber jacket as Indiana Jones inRaiders of the Lost Arc.
The 80s opened the doors to a range of styling possibilities for the bomber jacket: Tom Cruise’s Top Gun piece expressed the avenues of individualizing the jacket with custom embellishments, in a more masculine spin on the denim patchwork of the 1960s psychedelic music scene; Steve McQueen merged the men’s nylon bomber with his signature muted moto rebel aesthetic; and Harrison Ford’s jacket gave a glimpse into future bomber couture blueprints, modifying the military-issue functionality for more ready-to-wear styling. Very few fashion pieces can boast the sheer versatility of the bomber jacket; its ’80s romp through Hollywood highlighted the underrated range of a well-designed piece, rooted in sturdy functionality, and carrying a signature silhouette featured in three staple fabrics: everything pairs with leather, cotton, and/or nylon, which is the low-key brilliance of the bomber jacket.
The leather A-2, cotton B-15, and nylon MA-1 cover the spectrum of cultural style. However, the bomber jacket is still relatively niche across the mainstream when compared to the near-ubiquity of say denim or even moto jackets; that niche appeal is precisely what makes the bomber jacket an ace in the closet right now.
The bomber jacket finds itself in its brink-of-the-final-break phase this millennium. While it hasn’t hit panoramic global mainstream saturation, it is enjoying its rounds as the bleeding-edge piece for fringe fashion subcultures and the cosmopolitan creative style sphere. The leather A-1 style speaks to a rugged lone ranging denizen, the classic cocoa hue echoes a casual aesthetic, while a cleaner pure black pairs well with a more elevated look. The nylon MA-1 is the contemporary celebrity style cult’s modern go-to for outerwear with a heavy-dose of rogue.
Where it is still making its way in the mainstream, the men’s bomber jacket hit center stage as a must-have in the world of fashion. Kanye West bridged the spheres of music, pop culture, and fashion designing the custom MA-1 inspired bomber jacket exclusively at Yeezus tour stops and pop-up shops. Meanwhile, everyone from Vetements, Alexander Wang, and Yves Saint Laurent to Chloe, Louis, and Gucci has given the classic Alpha Industries bomber their own spin before sending it down the runway.