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The Evolution of the Bomber

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The ubiquity of the bomber jacket in modern culture leads to one taking it for granted - not bothering to consider how or why the jacket has arrived in fashion everywhere. The bomber is perhaps one of the few styles which has managed to totally transcend and free itself from it's origins, no longer being associate with it's roots, but it's current uses. The roots of the bomber jacket are firmly entrenched in the military, specifically, the history of the United States Air Force. However, it has also firmly been rooted in fashion ever since it's mass popularization by Alpha Industries in the postwar era. The bomber jacket has now taken a place alongside the Jeep, camouflage, and other military staples as a popular cultural icon divorced from it's original intentions and context. Though our modern interpretation of the bomber is largely based on the MA-1, the jacket went through many iterations before becoming what it is today.

Steve McQueen wearing an A-2 jacket in The Great Escape (1963)


The A-2 jacket has become one of the most iconic jackets of the United States airforce sine it's introduction before the Second World War. It was the first jacket of the interwar period that saw any sort of popular appeal, and indeed is still common, mostly in men's fashions, today. It was adopted by the US Army as a successor to the A-1 jacket (which dated from 1927), on exactly May 9, 1931. Although its current form may vary depending on the brand, and even according to the different contracts that could have had a "said" manufacturer of the time, all A-2 jackets have several special features: two flap pockets on the front for keeping one's hands war (however, military protocol frowned on pilots putting their hands in their pockets), a shirt-type collar, leather epaulets, cuffs and an elastic waist, a lining made of a light material (cotton or silk) a leather band stitched inside the jacket to be able to hang it and the "military identity plate" of the soldier sewn just below. A colour was uniformly proposed by the military, which continues to be the most popular to this day: brown.

Marilyn Monroe in a B-15 jacket during a promotional event with US troops


At the same time as the appearance of new, more powerful, faster planes, the aviator jacket had also to evolve and modernize. The B-15 therefore emerged as a replacement for its voluminous predecessor for the speedier US Air Force soldiers, marking the end of the era of leather jackets they wore during the Second World War and sparking change to versions closer to the MA-1. At base, the B-15 is the first bomber jacket made of synthetic material, it was perfect for mid-seasons, and the airmen liked it because it was thinner which offered them more comfort in the narrow cockpit of their jet. The design of this new jacket included new features that are still found on today's models: a "pen" pocket on the arm, as well as zipped pockets positioned diagonally and a location for "clipping" a mask of oxygen.

In fact, several types of B-15 exist including one with triangular inserts on the torso so that the driver can let his oxygen mask hang when he does not use it. Later, other features appeared on the B-15, including a vertical fabric yoke to hold the oxygen hose in place during high-altitude flights. Ultimately, the B-15 is the model which would go on to become the MA-1, as it's shape was copied, though the MA-1 removed the B-15s sheepskin collar.

B-52 crew of the 346th Bombardment Squadron, donning MA-1 jackets shortly after their introduction


The MA-1 was designed by the US Air Force and historically produced by Dobbs Industries (later to become Alpha Industries) under the MIL-J-8279 specification. It is originally made of high quality nylon for its exterior and lining. Between these two layers of nylon is interposed another layer of wool to keep warm. After a few years, it will be replaced by a layer of polyester, much lighter and better at warming the wearer. Even though both models were very close initially, the MA-1 has undergone several changes compared to its predecessor the B-15. The sheep collar interfered with the parachute harness and was replaced by a knit collar (cotton or wool, often). On some models (from the 1960s), the lining was chosen in a bright orange, so that rescue crews hoisting pilots from crashes would immediately be able to spot their target. The Alpha MA-1, the commercial version of the MA-1, the one we call the "bomber" remains the most popular today. Since those who equipped the military were subject to "governmental" standards, several characteristics were modified / added when it was put on the market and then persisted over the years. They do not alter its appearance, which has remained almost identical, but instead ready the jacket to be worn by the masses. Thus the resistance of the modern jacket to water, the abandonment of the wool for acrylic in the collar, and the changes of liners which were adopted to make the MA-1 a jacket of the public.

The jacket has been of great service to soldiers since its creation, and the Vietnam War (then televised, against US public opinion) contributed in spite of itself to popularize the jacket on the American territory. The MA-1 then became a sought after jacket, so Alpha Industries began marketing it to the general public as well as to other European armies. It then became popular among young people of the time and remained linked to international pop culture. At this time, one of the most important movements was the dissident group of mods who started the skinhead movement. It was in England that the jacket was reborn, with the young people who identify with this new trend adopting the jacket, appreciating it for its versatility and simplicity, wearing it with tight jeans and Dr. Martens. The piece made it's first steps in Hollywood with Steve McQueen (The Hunter, 1980), which was then confirmed a few years later with Tom Cruise (Top Gun), entering the dresscode of the youth of the time but keeping it's Skinhead imprint. Although it must be recognized, it is in these years that the MA-1 will change dimension, starting to appear in fashion magazines and seeing new cultural horizons such as hip-hop scene the day.

Though the popular silhouette of fashion has changed greatly over the years, the bomber jacket has largely evolved with it. Nowadays, it is a constant source of inspiration for haute-couture brands in ready-to-wear, which modify it and personalize it as they sees fit. So this piece that was once created to fight the most extreme temperatures and fly at high altitude is now a basic that is found every year in the collections of brands around the world, whatever their origin, and it shows no sign of decline.

Shop Common's selection of Alpha Industries here, and other bombers here.

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