Whether you need a bomber winter jacket for low temperatures, a lightweight layer for spring, or a military-style sherpa jacket, there’s no denying that a good bomber is a wardrobe must-have. But how was the classic bomber jacket created, and why has its fashion appeal endured for decades? In this post, we’ll take you through the history of the bomber jacket, including a closer look at design variations, some little-known facts, and its place in the Alpha Industries’ legacy.
In World War I, aerial bombing was a common war strategy, especially in Europe, which led to the development of bomber aircraft and the training of fighter pilots – known as “aces” – to carry out strategic bombing raids. The first pilot bomber jackets were made of leather and fur, both highly insulating materials that were well-suited to the cold, open-air cockpits of WWI bomber planes. What we know as the bomber jacket today likely got its name from these aircrafts and their pilots.
In 1927, the US Army produced the first standard flight jacket: type A-1. Specs for the A-1 included a knit waistband and cuffs for better insulation, and was often made of horsehide, sheepskin, or goatskin leather. It also featured a button closure and flap pockets. The A-1 soon gave way to the A-2 in the ‘30s, which switched out the buttons for a more secure zip closure and featured a fold-down collar, inspiring a vintage and instantly recognizable silhouette.
During World War II, technological advancement allowed planes to fly faster and at higher altitudes, which brought the need for even warmer pilot jackets. Pictured above, the B-3 was one of these low-temperature models, lined with thick shearling.
Flight jacket models grew more and more innovative in both style and materials. The B-15 flight jacket was introduced in the ‘40s, with wool-knit cuffs and an outer shell made of nylon or a cotton-rayon blend. It also featured a mouton fur collar and oxygen mask straps, two design details that didn’t make it to later versions, and a sleeve pen pocket, a design detail that did.
Birth of the bomber
Finally, the B-15 became the blueprint for the most iconic bomber jacket design: the MA-1.
First created by Dobbs Industries (Alpha Industries’ predecessor) in 1948 and introduced to the U.S. military in 1949, the MA-1 flight jacket featured updated specs such as a wool knit collar, to replace the B-15’s fur, and high-quality nylon and polyester. This allowed for a more lightweight jacket that could be worn in warmer weather.
Though it originally appeared in midnight blue, the MA-1 became predominantly made in sage green (or olive) during the Korean and Vietnam wars. The olive bomber jackets allowed for better camouflage on the ground over the navy bomber jackets previously used.
Did you know?
The bright orange lining, now a signature detail of the women's bomber jacket, first appeared in the design of the MA-1. Its function was to increase pilots’ visibility in the event of a plane crash, so pilots could reverse their jacket and be more easily found by rescue teams.
Alpha Industries began manufacturing military outerwear in the ‘60s through contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense and quickly became a respected name in military apparel in the U.S. and around the world. The bomber underwent several design iterations, including the lighter weight L-2B, the CWU-45P, and its warm-weather version, the CWU-36P. Both CWU models were made from flame-resistant Nomex and serve as the current military flight jacket uniform.
Though the MA-1 has been officially retired from military use, its iconic design is the blueprint for the bomber we’re most familiar with in mainstream fashion.
From cockpit to streetwear
War raged on during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and soon, military clothing found its way to surplus stores and into civilian hands. In Britain, the bomber jacket was adopted by the mod subculture as well as working class “skinheads”, so called for their shaved heads and tough, hyper-masculine look of heavy worker boots paired with military attire. This look was soon co-opted by the LGBTQ community as well, and it wasn’t long before the bomber jacket took hold as a fashion statement.
Simultaneously, post-WWII Japan was finding a cultural voice with an inevitable American influence. U.S. soldiers stationed in Japan began a tradition of having their bomber jackets decorated with hand-stitched Japanese art and bringing them back home as souvenirs. These “souvenir jackets”, or sukajan, then re-emerged as a fashion staple among ‘60s youth counterculture as a statement of rebellion.
In the U.S., the ‘70s and ‘80s saw the explosion of hip hop, a revolutionary cultural movement of new music, art, and fashion. Military attire became true streetwear, and hip hop artists could be seen in various military style trends such as fatigues, heavy boots, camo prints, and, of course, bomber jackets.
More than just an aesthetic, the appropriation of military clothing reflected the ethos of the streets that hip hop came from, embodying the tough, rugged persona that urban black communities adopted in response to decades of socio-economic struggle. They saw themselves as fighting their own war in the streets, and this was reflected in the fashion of hip hop.
It was also around this time that Alpha Industries began producing jackets for the commercial market between military contracts, significantly expanding its brand and commercial business in the ‘80s.
Did you know?
In the transition from military to commercial fashion, one design detail underwent a small but significant change. The bomber’s traditional wool knit collar was found to be vulnerable to moths and other insects when stored in a home closet, so to better adjust for civilian use, the wool was switched out for acrylic or a wool/acrylic blend.
The bomber jacket was quick to permeate pop culture throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, as evidenced not only by its ubiquity in various strains of American subculture but also its presence in media. In the 1980 film The Hunter, actor Steve McQueen famously sported a traditional-style MA-1 jacket in sage green, even showing off its bright orange lining in the film’s climactic scene. Then in 1986 came the film Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise in an iconic G-1 flight jacket that would make film and fashion history.
Even high-end fashion designers took note of the men's bomber jacket’s booming popularity, and it easily made appearances on the runway. Menswear designer Raf Simons featured bomber jackets in his Fall/Winter 2001 collection, “Riot Riot Riot,” an homage to the rebellious origins of military-inspired street style. The bomber then showed up in high fashion collections from Helmut Lang, Rick Owens, and many more.
Most recently, the MA-1 trend received another boost when influential rapper and fashion icon Kanye West partnered with Alpha Industries to produce merch for his 2016 Yeezus tour. West purchased a hundred MA-1 jackets and applied his own logos and patches (one of them being the controversial Confederate flag sleeve patch) to sell to his fans, and he himself could be seen sporting an Alpha Industries bomber of his own.
In the hype that ensued, the bomber trend experienced a rebirth and Alpha even saw a boost in sales that year, validating the jacket’s “cool” factor among fashion-forward youth and solidifying its style durability for years to come.
What’s in a bomber jacket?
As we mentioned, flight jacket designs have changed over the years with varying degrees of popularity. So what makes a true bomber jacket?
The bomber we all know and love has a classic, easily recognizable silhouette, including:
-A loose (standard) fit;
-Ribbed knit collar, cuffs, and waistband; and
-Functional front and sleeve pockets.
Part of what makes this jacket so widely appealing is its versatility. The bomber’s standard fit is gender neutral and casual, and the functional design is easily adaptable for warm, cold, and transition seasons.Thanks to the bomber’s enduring popularity, a variety of contemporary styles and specs are available depending on personal preference. As the go-to brand for premium military and military-inspired outerwear, Alpha Industries has succeeded in creating a wide range of bomber jacket styles without sacrificing quality. These include the MA-1 Natus, which includes a detachable hood; the insulating B-3 Sherpa Mod adapted from a more vintage model; and a slim-fit version of the CWU 45P. It’s easy to find a stylish, high quality bomber of your own, with the added knowledge that when you put one on, you’re wearing a part of history.