The Bomber Jacket; one of the most storied and versatile pieces of clothing you can ever own. With origins in the military and countless differing iterations since the bomber is an iconic and classic item of clothing.
The Bomber Jacket: A Brief History
When you envision a flight jacket, what image comes to mind? If you grew up in the 80s, perhaps you picture Maverick, the dashing pilot from Top Gun, sporting a brown leather, badge-adorned G-1 jacket. Or maybe you think of Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski in a sleeker version of the bomber jacket. Regardless of the decade, if it's from the 1940s onwards, chances are your favourite stars, musicians, and athletes have been seen in a flight jacket at some point.
Among the various flight jacket styles, the bomber jacket stands out for its distinctive design. Its simplicity is key—ribbed collar and cuffs, free of unnecessary embellishments or extra pockets. The classic silhouette is roomy around the shoulders and body, with an elasticated ribbed hem for a touch of shape.
As is often the case with jackets, the bomber jacket was originally created out of military necessity. In the 1930s, leather and shearling jackets were worn by pilots to keep warm. However, as aircraft technology advanced and planes reached higher altitudes, colder temperatures became a challenge. Wet jackets posed the risk of freezing, which led to the introduction of the MA-1 jacket by the United States Air Force. These lighter, less bulky jackets were made from fabrics like cotton and nylon, with the collar removed to avoid interference in the cockpit.
Richard Byrd in flight jacket, 1920s
It provided pilots with the necessary warmth whilst proving to be lightweight and therefore ideal, whatever the conditions looked like. Also created around the 1950s was the slightly souped-up version, the MA-2.
It followed the same principles but with a few alterations including larger pockets, a traditional folded collar, and a slightly shorter cut and designed in a way to further enhance and support movement. Due to the add-ons, this particular style didn’t gain as much of a cult following outside military usage, other than with Marilyn Monroe of course.
The Bomber also had one particularly important feature, which strangely defined a part of my childhood: a reversible, bright orange lining. Honestly, when 10-year-old me first had a bomber jacket, I lost my mind at the fact that I could wear it inside out.
The snap buttons were external and internal, as were the pockets. I could wear the black nylon side during the day, and then turn it inside out—the blaze orange outlined by the black trim—for later that day (I was 10, and I wasn’t exactly allowed out in the evenings).
The other thing about being a 10-year-old is that you don’t really care much about why things are the way they are. I had never wondered why the internal lining was orange. I just loved the fact it was. The presumed reasoning behind the bright colour was that of search and rescue. Pilots who were downed and on enemy territory could turn the jacket inside out to be located by their allies more easily. Essentially, it’s hi-vis, which makes complete sense and is probably better justified than it looks pretty cool...
As I touched upon earlier, these new iterations were usually made from cotton and nylon, and most frequently in navy, black and sage green — the latter specifically during the Vietnam War given the nature of the grounds and surroundings they were in.
Following the war, military use of this specific jacket died down, and it would eventually be discontinued. However, simultaneously at that point, it was given a new lease of life. These jackets were adopted by European military and personnel in the ‘50s due to high demand.
When it started to be worn in more casual circumstances by ordinary civilians, the popularity of it grew pretty much around the globe, rather than just in the United States. Whether it was the punk and skinhead culture and movements of the 1970s United Kingdom, the mods of 1990s Japan, or the all-stars of America, the jacket was taking on a new form as the must-have fashion statement. The final catalyst to propel it into sartorial folklore? Cinema, of course.
Who wouldn’t wish they could have been Alain Delon, Steve McQueen (below), or Marlon Brando at one point in their lives? These guys, for all intents and purposes, were the style icons your style icons wanted to emulate.
While Delon proved to be a significantly controversial figure in his later years due to his allegiances, for lack of a better phrase, the younger version no doubt swooned his way into the hearts and minds of many. The ‘Is-It-A-Harrington-Or-Is-It-A-Bomber?’ Bomber in Once A Thief would look just as good on someone today as it did on him back in 1965. Which, incidentally, isn’t thirty-five years ago, but rather fifty-six. I’m not even that old in the grand scheme of things but just writing that sentence has aged me infinitely. I suppose you’re probably as keen for me to move on as I am.
The celluloid kings of the ‘60s and ‘70s ensured the modern generation had a lot of inspiration when it came to wearing the jacket. But it was adapted by such a wide range of society that it, at one point in time, became synonymous with the working class. These groups stood to go against the grain, often specifically in regards to government flailings and a disregard for the working class societies.
Fast-forward to the early ‘90s, and it was American hip-hop that reinvigorated the love for the Bomber. Naughty by Nature, Onyx and NWA were but a few iconic names that would often be seen sporting the jacket in music videos and shows, and this would continue through the decades thanks to artists like Missy Elliot, Rihanna, and many more.
The Versatility of a Bomber Jacket
It transcends borders, backgrounds and society, and unlike many jackets that come from military lineage today, the Bomber is arguably the most universal. One often wouldn’t find peacoats worn near the Equator, nor would you see a Greatcoat adorned in countries that don’t have cold winters. The Bomber jacket, however, thanks to its ability to be made up of light or heavy fabrics, can fit in no matter where in the world you may happen to reside in. So how would you wear a Bomber today?
A way that taps into my personal style and preference is the preppy, pseudo-Ivy League look. A sage or navy bomber would go quite well with an Oxford Cotton button down, silk repp tie, high-waisted trousers and derbies. Throw in a v-neck jumper for the slightly colder days and you’ve got a look that will keep you warm enough all throughout the autumn and into winter.
On a more universal appeal, there’s nothing quite as classic as a simple white tee and dark denim jeans — pretty much any jacket would work with this, so if in doubt, this is how you can go about wearing it. Swap out the denim for cotton chinos trousers when it gets hotter.
The primary reason it works so well, however, is because the shape of the jacket itself is very flattering. The volume in the shoulders and chest gives the element of broadness, whilst the elastic trim is designed to nip in at the waist. Essentially, it works the same for all different body types, heights and shapes, while still retaining a certain elegance which is hard to find with most other jackets.