There is surely no other piece of clothing that is better suited to the silver screen. Indeed, the bomber jacket has been ingrained in the minds of movie aficionados as much as fans of classic military garb, given that it has clothed a number of cinema’s finest leading protagonists. There was the stoic Hilts played by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, whose battered brown leather A-2 never left his shoulders.
Bruce Willis’ Butch Coolidge donned his own suede MA-1 throughout Pulp Fiction, showcasing the potential of the jacket when worn with jeans. And who could forget Top Gun, with the latest film paying tribute to Maverick’s original patched G-1 in the opening scene? Tom Cruise gets dressed in his hanger, first strapping on his IWC, before reaching for his leather jacket and aviator sunglasses. He mounts his Kawasaki GPZ 900R Ninja motorbike and rides, jacket open, to his Mach 9 flight in what is surely the dictionary definition of cool.
But the primary objective of the original bomber jackets wasn’t to look good. It was to perform. And given their origin in World War I, when aeroplane cockpits were open to the elements, that was the difference between life and death. Anyone who, like Cruise, has ridden a motorbike in cold weather will know the potential of wind chill and rain to completely debilitate you, lowering your ability to concentrate and perform. Now imagine that at altitude, at 200mph chasing down the enemy. It was imperative that the pilot’s clothing was up to the job.
This is why early jackets were bulky, heavy duty designs made from thick leather and soft shearling, the latter of which often lined the inside and the collar. In the US, these were designed by the hastily thrown together Aviation Clothing Board, which was only assembled in 1917, a year before the war ended. It wasn’t until the inter-war years when the bomber jackets we know and love began to take shape.
Jackets like the A-2 and Irvin Flight Jacket were being introduced as aircraft technology rapidly evolved. But the core traits remained the same. Aviator jackets needed to be warm and durable, and cut with a short hem so pilots didn’t sit on them in the cockpit. Pockets, both inside and out, were useful for carrying maps, compasses and flight notes, while hard wearing leather was at once rugged and smart.
Many early flight jackets differed in style based on location and regiment, with some looking like the shearling jackets of today, while others adopted more of an all-in-one look. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that jackets became more consistent. Although it had a relatively short shelf life, one of the first such designs born on US soil was the A-1.
This simple, lightweight style was standardised on 27 November 1927, issued as a summer flying jacket. It was the first design to have a knitted waistband, cuffs and neck, while its button through front and large pockets would inform future flying jackets for decades to come.
It was, however, flawed. Its buttons were fussy and time consuming to undo with gloves on, while the leather was too light for year-round wear. It was succeeded by the A-2 in 1931, a design that is arguably the most famous and iconic of all aviator jackets. This was the style worn by the US Air Corp from the 1930s to the end of WWII, a longevity which no doubt contributed to its heroic status. It was worn by thousands of pilots who gave their lives to the war effort, after all.
It improved on the A-1 with the addition of a zip up front, while a hidden placket gave it a more minimal appearance. This was furthered by the large flap pockets having concealed snap closures, as well as the new leather collar, which was far smarter than the A-1’s knitted version. Shoulder epaulettes were added, and the jacket was crafted from heavier-duty horsehide leather, which was warmer and could take a beating.
The official colour of the A-2 was ‘seal brown’ but thanks to its simple design and large leather panels, many airmen decided to customise theirs with patches and odes to their service. The backs were painted with tributes to their plane’s nickname and the places they flew, often featuring bikini-clad pin up girls and small bombs connoting the number of missions they flew.
The 1930s was a good time for flight jackets. Over on UK soil, it was an American who pioneered the RAF’s outerwear. Leslie Irvin invented the modern parachute, but he also dreamt up a shearling jacket that could withstand the sub-zero temperatures WWII planes were subjected to.
Approved by the Air Ministry in 1932, the RAF sheepskin flying jacket, or ‘Irvin’ jacket as it was known, was a chunky, large-collared jacket made from the best bits of the sheep. Lined entirely with shearling for warmth and comfort, and with an outer made of the hard-wearing skin, it was warm, rugged and instantly iconic.
A number of brands produce their own versions today. One such is the UK-based Goldtop, which makes its own from 100% British sheepskin. “It’s been styled on the original WWII sheepskin flying jackets worn during the Battle of Britain”, says brand director, Joe Cullen, “with the two-panel back rather than the (cheaper to produce) quarter- split panels”.
Other brands, like Aero Leather, devote entire lines to military jackets. They “are reproduced to the finest detail using original WWII patterns”, says Denny Calder, the brand’s production manager. “They are made using materials as close as possible to what was used originally; this is true of not just the leathers, but also the hardware and labelling. The leathers chosen are carefully selected to be as close to original spec as possible, be it in the Horsehide leather we have tanned both in the UK and Italy or the North American Shearling used in our Sheepskin jackets.”
Flight jackets moved on following WWII. The G-1 of 1947 was one of the last of the great leather styles, while the MA-1 brought in the modern jet era at the end of the 1950s with its lightweight nylon construction and simplified profile. Today, military pilots around the world wear more complicated flight suits, so the romance of the once humble aviator jacket is reserved for those with a taste for history and quality clothing that is built to last.
You might not wear an A-2 for what it was intended for, in the same way you wouldn’t strap an IWC Pilot’s Spitfire to your wrist to go flying in, and that’s ok. They’ll both make you look cooler than you are, and anyway, appreciating the stories behind them is half the fun.