The history of bomber jackets
Getting schooled: A brief history of the bomber jacket
Words— Philip Mak
Before they were blowing up on your Instagram feed, bomber jackets were the outerwear of choice for pilots, punks, and police over the course of the 20th Century. Known for a (generally) cropped length, looser arms and shoulders, and ribbed collars, waistbands and cuffed sleeves, these key layering items are reliably the tried, tested, and trendy difference between a look and a lewk.
Naturally, we trust our fellow Canadian The Weeknd, who once said, “For my generation, the bomber jacket is like a replacement for the suit jacket. It's a piece that men wear every day, and it's something that I would wear for any occasion, whether it's on the street or going to an awards ceremony.”
While we think bombers look fresh regardless of gender, we do agree they layer perfectly over any fit day or night. Plus, these outerwear pieces are also great for staying warm while looking cool—it’s what they were designed to do. While bomber jackets can now be found from high fashion collections to high street shops made in everything from cotton to silk to suede and leather, this look originally got its marching orders from the military where it kept WWI and WWII pilots toasty in poorly insulated early fighter planes.
Keep reading to see how this timeless trend took off over 100 years ago.
From cockpits to closets
The OG bomber jackets were known as ‘flight jackets’ and were created by the US Army Aviation Clothing Board in 1917. While many of us complain today when an airline doesn’t have enough legroom or decent entertainment, WWI pilots had to fly in fighter planes with uninsulated, open-air cockpits. Those early flight jackets were made of sealskin or horse leather and lined with fur to keep out the cold.
Between the two World Wars, flight jacket design evolved alongside aviation advancements, with cockpits becoming closed, narrower and cramped with technology. Consequently, pilots’ outerwear had to also become more streamlined. Various new styles were released including the leather US Army Type A-1 in 1927, which laid the groundwork for the modern bomber jacket with its knitted collar, cuffs and waistband, though this one had a button-up closure.
The A-1 was followed by the A-2 —now with a zip closure— and then the B-15 going into WWII, which was similar to today’s bombers including a pen zip pockets on the sleeve and slash pockets on the abdomen. Its design also included fur around the collar, a cotton body and leather straps to hold oxygen masks. These wouldn’t make the cut with the upgraded MA-1 model, which appeared around 1949-1950 and continues to this day.
The MA-1’s main distinctions are the fur collars were replaced with knitted ones that wouldn’t get in the way of parachute harnesses, a signature orange lining that could be exposed in the case of a crash and cost-saving, easy-to-clean nylon that was superior to leather in its ability to keep the pilot dry inside and the moisture out. Originally dark blue, designs switched to a more camouflaging green during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
It was around this time in the 1950s and 1960s that the bomber jacket transitioned to civilian life and, while a variety of cuts and materials are now available, it has remained relatively similar since. American company Dobbs Industries (later becoming Alpha Industries) began producing MA-1s for the US Army in 1963 and subsequently the general population, selling surplus first to Europe and Australia before expanding to the rest of the world. Bombers jackets also became a huge trend among Japanese men, who were obsessed with Americana following WWII.
Beyond its American military associations, the MA-1 had the added benefit of withstanding temperatures of 14 to 50 degree Fahrenheit — making it a lightweight fall-to-spring jacket and a popular choice among the po-po (hint: police) who needed to spend long periods of time outdoors. As the bomber became a mainstream fashion item, designers replaced its wool collar with acrylic to protect against hungry domestic insects, switched out the quilted lining and added more water-repellent treatments.
As a symbol of ‘the Man’, the bomber got appropriated by working-class English skinheads and punks in the 1960s through to the 80s, who daringly dyed them burgundy and pair them with Doc Martens boots and skinny jeans. Notably, London’s gay community also co-opted the look — subverting the hyper-masculine, homophobic oppression it faced from the skinheads and police. Across the Pond, a similar trend took off in the ballrooms of New York City’s LGBT populous, while Ivy League college campuses also refashioned bombers into varsity jackets.
Heading into the 90s, bombers evolved their counter-culture cachet by becoming the outerwear-of-record for the grunge and alternative rock scenes. Towards the end of the decade and the beginning the new millennium, the look saw a revival among high fashion designers from Helmut Lang to Rick Owens to Raf Simons, which helped pushed the style into fast fashion retailers. Alpha Industries also launched successful collaborations with a number of streetwear labels through its most profitable partnership would be with rapper Kanye West.
Reporting for off-duty
From Hollywood to hip-hop stars, on-duty soldiers to off-duty models, the bomber jacket’s military-meets-counter-counter history and flexibility in terms of cuts, materials and cost have gained it wide appeal. As mentioned, Kanye West is often credited with introducing the look to the Instagram generation. The American rapper and fashion designer collaborated with Alpha Industries for his Yeezus tour merch, creating an MA-1 bomber jacket with a Confederate flag sleeve patch — a nod to two aspects of the style’s history: its skinhead associations and pilots’ propensities for sewing patches onto theirs.
Yeezy’s impact on fashion was explosive, with Alpha Industries reporting a 30-percent jump in sales, new collaborations with high fashion brands like Vetements and knockoffs across fast fashion retailers. Long before ‘ye gave Millennials a crash course in bombers, old-school Hollywood hunks like Humphrey Bogart in Tokyo Joe (1949), Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) were already putting the ‘layer’ into ‘player’ — and zipped the style into the zeitgeist.
In more recent cinematic history, Tom Cruise made hearts soar as a bomber jacket-clad pilot in Top Gun, while Ewan McGregor’s skinhead-era Mark Renton rocked one in the opening scene of Trainspotting. Perhaps the most seminal 21st Century screen time for the style was Ryan Gosling’s scorpion jacket in Drive. Accessorized with a bloody hammer, it wasn’t just a moment — it was a mood (and a huge one, at that).
When it comes to men and women, get you a jacket that can do both. Bombers look equally fly on either gender (and everyone in between), and have become the favourite outerwear of celebrities like, Kim Kardashian, who even has a miniature MA-1 for their daughter, North West. Meanwhile, stars from musicians like Rihanna to models like Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner also have an arsenal of flight jackets waiting in the wings, all in a variety of materials and cuts that reflect the outwear’s ability to work with any style — including yours.
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