Like many classic men’s garments, bomber and flight jackets were originally created as highly functional work wear for members of the military.
Bomber jackets are often called flight jackets, and in fact, the terms can be used interchangeably to refer to one garment. They have a long history, come in a wide number of variations, and are great for casual attire.
What is a Bomber Jacket?
Today, the “bomber” or “flight” jacket is a general term that describes a set of garment characteristics that was originally derived from military issue jackets that were issued to personnel in the first half of the 20th century. Though the original bomber jacket was designed to keep the wearer warm in very cold temperatures, most bomber jackets today retain many of the same features that made it so iconic in the first place. The jacket is typically constructed from leather, sheepskin, or fabric. The jacket is cut waist length, is closed with a zipper or buttons, and features elasticized cuffs and a hem. The collar can be worn flipped up and secured around the throat for extra protection from the elements.
History of the Bomber & Flight Jacket
Like many other military-based garments, the flight jacket was named after its basic purpose. In the early days of flight after the turn of the century, the open cockpits of planes made flying a cold, windy task. The jacket was initially designed by the military to protect pilots from these conditions with heavy insulation, tight closures around the waist, wrist, and neck, and a tough, weather-resistant exterior. In World War I, the performance materials of the day were all natural products, so flight jackets were constructed of sheepskin, fur, and tough leathers.
Great advances were made in flight between the two World Wars. As the second international conflict was set in motion, planes could climb to even higher altitudes, which exposed pilots to even more extreme conditions (as low as −50 °C) in the unpressurized, unheated cockpits of long-range aircraft. In response to the changing needs of pilots, Leslie Irvin, a British aviator and businessman, created the first sheepskin flight jacket intended for the extreme conditions found at high altitudes.
In addition, planes were now carrying non-navigational crew and high-altitude, long-range bombing raids over Europe had become one of the main aerial missions of the war. It was during World War II that the flight jacket also became known alternatively as the bomber jacket.
Flight and Bomber Jacket Models
Over the years, many different iterations and models of the flight and bomber jacket were created. In the US, “B” jackets were typically based on sheepskin, while “A” model jackets were leather lined with wool, cotton, or silk.
The first of the famous flight jackets was the model Type A-1, which was issued between 1927 to 1931. It was worn by the flying superstars of the day, such as Jimmy Doolittle. The A-1 was the first jacket to feature a knitted wool waistband and cuffs, which would set the design standard for flight jackets going forward. It also featured a capeskin exterior (a kind of sheepskin), two flapped cargo pockets, a heavy cotton lining, and horn buttons for fastening. The military eventually abandoned capeskin, as it was not durable enough to survive the utilitarian purpose it was created for.
The US Army Air Forces introduced the successor of the Type A-1 Flight jacket, the model Type A-2, in 1931. It was produced in by a wide range of manufacturers across the US until 1943, so many different materials and design modifications were employed over that time. In general, a Type A-2 was constructed of horsehide leather, which was much harder-wearing than capeskin, and lined with silk. It was still designed for open cockpits, which explains the sturdy snaps and reinforced pockets. The A-2’s collar could be closed completely in order to protect the wearer from the wind and the rather slim, functional cut was ideal for the cramped cockpit. As it became clear that the US would join the fight in World War II, the demand for original A-2 materials increased and the A-2 specifications were modified to use goat leather and cotton linings. For a more detailed look at the A-2 jacket, read our A-2 Flight Jacket Guide here.
The owners of A-2 flight jackets were the elite aircrew among military personnel, and they frequently decorated their jackets with artwork and embroidery detailing their combat exploits. The cache surrounding the A-2 eventually carried over to the American public, where it became a classic garment coveted by civilians and military personnel alike. It remains one of the two most famous models of flight jackets, along with its replacement the model G-1, decades after its official discontinuation. Even though the A-2’s successor was originally referred to as either the model M-422A or the model ANJ-3, the model G-1 is now the colloquial term for many variations on a leather flight jacket with or without a fur collar. The jacket got its start in World War II, and was used extensively in various forms in the following decades.
In the early 1930’s, the American military took inspiration from Leslie Irvin’s sheepskin flight jackets and created their own: the B-3. The hefty model B-3 flight jacket featured a wide sheepskin collar with two leather straps that could be used to fasten it tightly around the neck. This jacket, like it’s A-letter cousins, was modified frequently in the 30’s and 40’s. Once the cockpits of planes were closed, the need for a less bulky version of a sheepskin flight jacket arose, and the streamlined model B-6 jacket was the result. It featured a slimmer cut, a single leather throat latch, and angled slash pockets.
In 1943, the military introduced the model B-10 as a replacement for the A-2 and the B-6 jackets. As the first flight jacket with a fabric shell and an alpaca lining, it was intended to be lighter weight, less bulky and more versatile that it’s predecessors. Though it was only useful for temperatures ranging from 25-55 degrees, they quickly became the favorite of fighter pilots. The B-10 was so coveted it was worn by many non-flying generals who chose to wear the jacket despite it not being part of their uniform.
Despite its popularity, the B-10 was quickly superseded by the model B-15 in late 1944. This jacket was also shortlived, and it wasn’t long until the military shifted models yet again to the fabric MA-1 and MA-2 models as the Jet Age was beginning around 1950. These jackets were typically dark blue or sage green with a bright orange lining, and they featured knitted cuffs and a waistband. The MA-2 had a fold down collar while the MA-1 had a knitted collar. The look of the MA-2 is what most people think of as a “bomber” jacket in the terms of modern fashion.
Flight and bomber jackets continued to evolve within the military and they were consistently popular with the American public in the last half of the 20th century. Then, in 1986, the bomber jacket, specifically the G-1, would be launched again into the sartorial spotlight with the release of the film Top Gun.
How to Wear a Bomber Jacket
Since the flight or bomber jacket was technically part of a work wardrobe, it doesn’t necessarily have a distinct sartorial purpose in the way a navy blazer or a pair of seersucker pants has. There aren’t any specific occasions or events in which a bomber is the garment of choice.
This is a jacket that one chooses to buy and wear specifically because of the look, which makes it a flexible jacket to have around when you want to create an interesting combination. A bomber, even though it was part of a uniform, has always been more casual in nature since it was paired with other similarly performance driven clothing, such as flight suits and khakis. It’s easier to have fun with since there aren’t many “rules” to consider.
Here are some tips on how to what to look for in a bomber jacket and how to wear one:
- Choose a plain, unadorned bomber for the most classic look
- The jacket should be leather, suede or fabric in classic colors, such as shades of brown, blue, or green; avoid black, which is too formal for a casual jacket
- The jacket should fit well, don’t buy it oversized or undersized; you should be able to zip it and wear it as a regular outerwear
- Pair a bomber of flight jacket with elevated casual attire such as khakis, denim, cords and button-down shirts
- A bomber looks great with casual textures such as knit ties and checked shirts
- Choose to pair it with leather or canvas shoes that reflect the functional-cool aesthetic of the jacket, such as work boots or brogues; avoid overly casual shoes like trainers and dressier shoes such as loafers
- Don’t wear a bomber or a flight jacket over another jacket; it adds too much bulk
- Don’t let your shirt hang much more than an inch lower than the hem of a bomber jacket, or you’ll end up looking sloppy; tuck in your shirt or wear a shorter shirt
- You can wear it with a t-shirt as a base layer, but keep your pants and shoes polished
How To Buy a Bomber Jacket
There are three main ways to buy a bomber or flight jacket: vintage, reproduction, or fashion. You can buy a genuine vintage flight or bomber jacket, but they often fetch many thousands of dollars and the sizing may be a challenge for the average guy. Since the quality of the original jacket was so high, many vintage pieces are still in great shape. If that’s not for you, we recommend buying a reproduction or a fashion bomber jacket. A reproduction is best for someone if an authentic look, high quality, and longevity are important, and you have at least $500-1500 to spend for a leather jacket. Reproductions of fabric jackets are much more affordable. If you want to spend less or prefer a more modern take on the bomber or flight jacket, a fashion jacket is the best option.
Sources for Bomber Jackets
For authentic or vintage bomber and flight jackets, eBay and specialized collectors are typically the best resources. For reproduction jackets in leather, Eastman Leather (which we wrote a profile about here), Cockpit USA, and US Wings offer a range of leather options in various models. US Wings also offers nylon flight jackets. Alpha Industries offers reasonably priced fabric reproduction jackets.
What do you think about bomber jackets? How do you keep the look both fresh and classic?