Posted on 14 September 2019
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the company responsible for bringing fame to the flight jacket. Much like the trench coat, bomber jackets – as they’re more commonly known in modern society – have a long and winding history wrapped in military commissions, name changes and catwalks alike. Some of that story began in 1959 when an American contractor in the state we’ve all come to know for its whiskey established its first Department of Defence (DOD) contract with the United States Military.
DOD contracts can be make or break for many clothing designers and fortunately for Samuel Gelber of Knoxville, Tennessee – it would begin his company Alpha Industries’ (AI) military legacy. To the surprise of many, AI’s first DOD wasn’t for the jacket we’ve all come to love, instead, it was a contract to manufacture Navy shipboard shirts, and another winter favourite the Air Force N-3B parka. It wasn’t until 1963 when several more contracts were granted that the AI’s MA-1 Flight Jacket was born. The same year Steve McQueen would don a leather version in the iconic film The Great Escape. Two years later the company would delve in military field jackets before entering the commercial mark in 1970.
Prior to AI’s production of the MA-1 Flight Jacket, other garments known as the A-2 and A-1 Flight Jacket were keeping pilots warm from the mid-1920s onward. Prior to 1939, the idea of an enclosed cockpit on fighter jets and planes was largely unheard of. Instead, most of the fighter planes of 1918 were fabric-covered, externally braced biplanes with open cockpits and external landing gear writes Britannica. At speeds of up to 200km per hour and temperatures as low as -50*, warm clothing for pilots was vital. And so in 1917, the American military established the Aviation Clothing Board who were responsible for ensuring soldiers stay warm at height. Early attempts to keep soldiers warm looked a lot like leather trench coats lined with sheepskin. History and war museums show further variations before reaching early versions of the garment, later called the flight jacket.
While the history of the bomber jacket isn’t entirely conclusive, nor does it give us an exact birth date, we can all agree the winter staple evolved rather stylishly while integrating its way into modern fashion over the years. In fact, just last year when the cherry red version James Dean wore in Rebel Without A Cause went up for auction it was set to raise up to $760,000 according to the ABC News. Appearances in Top Gun, The Great Escape and on Marilyn Monroe have kept the classic jacket from going out of style. Despite the variations, the bomber is a timeless jacket which has held its own for well over 60 years. From the cockpit of a jet plane to the backs of models on a runway, the bomber is a staple item which proves its style and value as a tried and tested garment beneficial to soldiers and civilians alike.
For a visual history check out Esquire’s round-up beginning with the cold war here.
Let us know what you like to pair your bomber jacket with in the comments below, we dig rocking them with old-school pairs of jeans like in Top Gun!