From high altitude to high fashion: the history of the bomber jacket

Ever since the 20s, the bomber jacket has been one of the most popular outerwear shapes around. We take you on a journey along its fashionable flight path.

We love the bomber jacket. It almost always plays a part in our seasonal collections because it’s so effortless to wear. You’d have to be trying really hard to not look good in a bomber jacket. From Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire to Ryan Gosling's unnamed stunt driver in Drive, via Tom Cruise's Maverick in Top Gun, the bomber has lit up the big screen with amperes of cool. The waisted cut is naturally flattering, even for bigger guys, and it assimilates with virtually all wardrobe styles. This season we created our Bermondsey bomber, which honours many of the details of the MA-1 and B-15 that went before it. Cut in an Italian water-repellent Marsh cloth, it features a double-ended zip fastening, rib hem and cuff with a fold-over collar, plus two side-entry flap pockets just like the original grandaddy A-1. The Bermondsey is very lightweight, designed to be worn throughout Spring to Autumn, and comes in three neutral colours: green, beige and navy, making each one incredibly versatile and simple to pair with other casual and smart-casual items.

What's really interesting is tracing the evolution of the bomber jacket. Modern menswear has a lot to thank the military for. There isn’t an enduring silhouette whose origins can’t be traced back to military garb, either ceremonial or designed for battle. From the melton wool pea coats worn by naval officers to the long trench and greatcoats via the submariner's boiler suits, the necessities and rigours of battle have literally shaped the evolution of menswear. As much as the military is about might, it is also about pride, pomp and performance, three characteristics often distilled into parade uniform. But you won't find the bomber doing pomp. The no-nonsense waist-cut blouson marries minimalistic form with a history of function at many thousands of feet in the air.

That today’s bombers are virtually unchanged from their ancestors of the 1950s hints at the perfection of their design. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ could be the bomber jacket’s tagline. The styles we recognise today, such as our own Bermondsey bomber jacket, have much to owe the MA-1 jacket of the 1950s, and its predecessor the B-15. But the bomber jacket took to the skies decades before these two styles were ever developed. It was the founding of the US Aviation Clothing Board in 1917 that ensured that pilots of the time were suitably attired for the perils of flying open-cockpit, which was in many cases a cold, wet and miserable business. Hence the first bombers jackets’ primary requirement was to protect the pilots from the elements.

Jimmy Doolittle in an A1 jacket

This need brought about the iconic A-1 bomber jacket in 1927 (it only lasted four years ion active duty before being decommissioned). But with it came many of the hallmarks of the modern bomber jacket: the elasticated waistband and cuffs for improved insulation and a masculine fit; the two flapped pockets on the front; and the knitted collar. Due to supply bottlenecks and scarcity, the fabric of the A-1 changed depending on who was making it and where, but for the most part it came in either goatskin, sheepskin, or horsehide. While the rapacious march of warfare technology meant the A-1 quickly became operationally defunct, it was nevertheless immortalised by the great aviator Charles Lindbergh who sported one to complete the first-ever solo transatlantic flight in 1927.

Steve McQueen in an A2 jacket

In the A-1’s place came the A-2, made famous by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (the USAAF still issues the A-2 to this day). As standard issue for the Air Corps, it originally came in horsehide with a silk lining, but due to wartime rationing, they were downgraded to goatskin and cotton. I was a solid style, robust enough to be comfortable flying open cockpit. It was eventually decommissioned in 1943, to be replaced by the lesser-known M-422, later renamed the G-1. It featured a mouton collar and a bi-swing back for improved movement. We say ‘lesser-known’ because it is rarely referenced these days, but it is perhaps one of the most recognisable thanks to the cinematic monument of military homoeroticism that is Top Gun. It’s Maverick’s jacket if you needed to ask.

Pilot in his G1 bomber jacket

Now, a caveat. We have up to now been calling all of the aforementioned jackets ‘bombers’, but if we’re being pedantic, they are all really flight jackets, being used by pilots at relatively low altitudes. But the next member of the family can lay claim to being the first, original bomber. Meet the B-3, an absolute beast of a sheepskin jacket with a thick shearling lining that was designed to keep aviators warm at freezing altitudes above 30,000ft with the bomb bay doors wide open. Design details included a buckle fastened collar, while it ditched the elasticated cuffs and waistband which were no longer required. Over the next few years, the B3 co-existed with a number of other ‘B’ iterations, from the slightly more streamlined B-6 and the Alaska-bound B-7 parka to the alpaca-lined B-10 in cloth before finally handing over the cockpit to the B-15, the poster boy of the jet age and worn by the first man to break the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager. Advances in aviation technology meant that the B-15 could be constructed from lightweight nylon, which had up to then only been used for parachutes. It afforded pilots more comfort and movement in cockpits which had become infinitely more complex, plus the vastly reduced bulk was necessary to avoid catastrophe in the event that they needed to eject from the aircraft.

Skins wearing the MA-1 bomber

In 1959, the B-15 had its wings clipped and in its place came the MA-1, the jacket which is most recognisable to contemporary iterations of the bomber. Originally constructed in midnight blue and sage green nylon cloths with a polyester interlining, the MA-1 features the now-classic elasticated bomber collar, cuffs and waistband. After the Vietnam war, army surplus stores were overrun with MA-1s, which made them incredibly popular and great value. The 1970s saw them widely adopted by punks, mods and skinhead subcultures before luxury fashion houses appropriated them in high-end fabrics from the 80s onwards. Now, the bomber jacket is a key element and much-adored piece of modern menswear thanks, no less, to nearly a century of design and aviation evolution.

Click right here to explore more Oliver Spencer outerwear styles for Spring/Summer.

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