A Brief History of the Bomber Jacket
The history of the bomber jacket, from WWII to Yeezus Tour.
Image via Complex Original
Much of menswear owes its allegiance to military history. From shirting to outerwear, most of our most commonly worn gear comes straight out of your local military base. For those who dig a little deeper, you'll discover a rich clothing history that's not only rooted in functionality, but style and design.
The bomber jacket—or MA-1 if we're being technical—has a longstanding history that stretches from the middle of the 20th Century into today. Starting as a jacket that was best suited for chilly, cramped cockpits, the jacket has become into an outerwear staple that's seen high fashion reinterpretations for the modern man. Here's how it evolved from standard issue outerwear to the wardrobe staple in your closet.
1940s: The A-2 and B-15 set a standard.
With the advent of air combat in World War II, pilots needed outerwear that was going to be functional in high-altitude cold weather, while still being streamlined enough to stay out of the way of plane operation. As flight tech advanced, cockpits became more cramped with tech, and planes could fly faster and higher. It's these details that spurred innovation from leather and fur, to wool and waterproofed nylon.
The bomber jacket as we know it today would not have existed without the influence of two jackets that came before: the A-2 and the B-15. The A-2 is a horsehide leather jacket with snap button closure, a neck flap, and two flap pockets that adorn the front of the jacket.
The B-15 jacket shares a much more obvious connection with today's MA-1 bomber jacket. In an effort to cater to the new needs of pilots, which centered on higher, faster planes, the B-15 was fixed with a fur collar (cutting down on overall jacket bulk), a “pen” zip pocket on the sleeve, and the “slash” pockets that, to this day, adorn MA-1 bombers.
While the B-15 was a huge jump from the A-2; much like the difference in flight tech, the B-15 is only slightly different from the MA-1 of today. The B-15 comes with a cotton outer, the use of leather straps on the chest to hold oxygen masks in flight, and the lack of the now signature orange liner.
1949-1950: Enter the MA-1.
Mid-1950s: Bombers enter public service.
Late '60s-'80s: The bomber jacket goes through a rebellious phase.
1980s: The bomber jacket goes Hollywood.
It would be difficult to forget the role that film has played in not only spreading the MA-1 to the public, but for keeping it as a popular outerwear option today. Initially, the films of action star Steve McQueen, and specifically The Hunter in 1980, showed how badass bombers could be. A year later, Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones character ran from huge boulders and cracked his trademark whip in Raiders of the Lost Ark clad in a custom brown bomber inspired by the A-2.
1986's incredibly popular Top Gun featured patched-out A-2 leather jackets on Tom Cruise's character, ensuring bombers were firmly planted in popular culture. Over time, films that have looked back at punk and skinhead culture, like cult film This is England, or American History X, show how the style was worn by those in the subcultures of the '80s and '90s.
There's been a major resurgence in the style lately, like Kanye West's confederate flag adorned “Yeezus” Alpha Industries bomber. He's even put his daughter North, in a miniature version of the jacket.
2000s-Now: The bomber meets the runway.
Today's bomber, depending on where you buy it, will either be a very close reproduction of the classic, or tailored towards modern tastes. A brand name in their own right, Alpha Industries received a military contract in 1963 to create MA-1s, and began producing for civilians in the '70s. You'll find that their jackets are military spec replicas, with concessions made in color, and materials for a wider civilian audience.
Streetwear brands like Stüssy and Supreme regularly reinterpret the bomber jacket, often collaborating with old-school manufacturers like Alpha Industries or Schott NYC to make custom versions. On the other end of the spectrum, labels like The Real McCoy's and Buzz Rickson aim to make super accurate reproductions of the standard issue versions, down to every last detail. Rickson's excruciating attention to detail got the label a mention in William Gibson's 2003 book Pattern Recognition, making a black Buzz Rickson MA-1 bomber jacket an indelible part of protagonist Cayce Pollard's uniform.
Ironically enough, Buzz Rickson actually never made a black MA-1, but had been planning to release a jet black version for its tenth anniversary in 2004. As fate would have it, Gibson and Rickson went on to collaborate on a collection of military repro outerwear.
The bomber jacket has also provided countless inspiration to high fashion menswear designers, who consistently revisit and reinterpret the silhouette. Whether you're talking about the now classic Raf Simons oversized "Pyramid" bomber from his Spring/Summer 2000 SUMMA CUM LAUDE collection; Helmut Lang's iconic "bondage" bombers from 2004; elongated bombers from street goth favorites Rick Owens and Fear of God; or floral printed versions from Balenciaga and Dries Van Noten, bomber jackets are now runway veterans.
For the most part, these reinterpretations forgo the bulky sleeves and extra pockets, in an effort to further streamline the silhouette of the jacket. Considering Raf Simons and Rick Owens are known to design collections inspired by punk rock, gothic, and/or counter culture as a whole, a bomber jacket is an obvious fit for these types of designer brands. Newer brands like STAMPD add to the meta-ness of it all by channeling Helmut Lang for its recently released Strapped bomber.
Even fast fashion retailers like H&M and Topman have designed their own versions for those on a tighter budget (albeit at the cost of functionality). While newer versions may not be cockpit-ready, there's a reason that most guys want bomber jacket: You can't hate on something that's as practical as it is stylish.