Why you should care
Because this jacket saw action long before Kendall Jenner took notice.
Readying himself for the cockpit, pilot Lt. Command Tom Tucker grabbed his goggles and gas mask, and slipped his jacket over his flight suit. He was en route to Vietnam in 1966, but at high altitudes, cockpits provided little protection against the freezing air, so the MA-1 bomber jacket was essential.
Long before you saw bomber jackets floating down fashion runways or on the backs of Jenners and Hadids, they were shooting through the sky during wartime. The now ubiquitous MA-1 bomber jacket — sold everywhere from Balenciaga to Forever21 — was first issued around 1949 by the U.S. Air Force. It was an upgrade from the A-2 and B-15 jackets worn in World War I and II, replacing cumbersome design with more streamlined, practical aesthetics.
As technology advanced, according to the book A-2 and G-1 Flight Jackets: Hell-Bent for Leather by Derek Nelson and Dave Parsons, cockpits became more cramped, and the bulky A-2 had to go. With a pen pocket on the sleeve and a weatherproof nylon finish, the B-15 was more minimal, but the MA-1 pared down the design even further, removing the fur collar and replacing it with a woolen one so as not to interfere with parachute harnesses.
The jacket’s look ‘makes it impossible to forget its first use for what has often been depicted as glamorous and no doubt dangerous work.’
As the world changed, so too did the jacket. Between the world wars and the Korean and Vietnam wars of the ’50s and ’60s, the jackets changed color from their traditional midnight blue to a sage green to help provide camouflage in dense jungles and countrysides. A bright orange lining was added to the inside of the jacket so that stranded or wounded pilots could turn it inside out to signal for help, according to Nelson and Parsons.
The look, worn by Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable during their service in World War II, caught Hollywood’s eye, leading to the jacket’s foray into civilian wear. The MA-1-style jacket came to symbolize James Dean’s rebellious masculinity and sexuality. Beatrice Behlen, senior curator of fashion and decorative arts at the Museum of London, says that the jacket’s look “makes it impossible to forget its first use for what has often been depicted as glamorous and no doubt dangerous work.” The jacket embodied an attitude — an expression of manhood and rebellion — giving young men a chance to look “daring and dangerous, wearing something more casual than a suit.”
The functionality of the MA-1 made it a quick civilian favorite. Designed for temperatures between 14 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it was the perfect cross-seasonal outerwear. Enjoyed by private citizens and public servants like police officers, the mainstreaming of the style brought yet more design changes. The woolen collar and cuffs became acrylic, the lining became nonquilted, and waterproofing was adjusted depending on where they were sold.
Soon the jacket was finding fans overseas. In 1960s Japan, a counterculture began embracing “Americana,” including clothing imports like the MA-1. By the late 1970s, the jacket was the preferred pairing with Dr. Martens boots for British punks and skinheads, according to Punk Rock: An Oral History by John Robb. The MA-1, despite being commercially available, was seen as anticonsumerist, thanks to its wartime, working-class history. Women also adopted the MA-1 through the ’80s and as Third Wave feminism took over the ’90s. Stealing men’s looks has long been a feature for women’s fashion, Behlen says. “There seems to be something cool and sexy about wearing men’s clothes — the most well-known cliché being a man’s shirt being worn by a woman with not much else.”
Like anything that becomes counterculture, high fashion began embracing the bomber jacket too. Raf Simons unleashed the Pyramid bomber in 2000, and in 2004 Helmut Lang’s now iconic bondage bombers took over the fashion world. Thanks in part to Kanye West’s Yeezus tour DIY collaboration with Alpha Industries, the jacket is currently enjoying a renaissance. Alpha Industries has partnered with streetwear labels like Stussy and Opening Ceremony and fashion houses like Vetements to create high-fashion variables of the MA-1 that go for as much as $2,000. In the trickle-down consumerism of contemporary society, rip-offs of the MA-1 have made their way to mainstream shops, which is about as far removed as they could have possibly come from their origins in Vietnam’s jungles.
As the MA-1 progressed through pop culture, it simultaneously disappeared from the cockpit. In the ’70s, the MA-1 was banned from flight because its nylon shell was susceptible to fire. The U.S. Air Force still issues the jackets, but strictly as earthbound gear.