Many iconic menswear pieces are derived from military clothing, such as the double-breasted trench coat, the white t-shirt, khaki pants and the flight jacket, or bomber. The US military, notorious for pursuing maximum efficiency and productivity, surprisingly focused on designing comfortable functional pieces. Servicemen often brought these innovative styles back to their civilian lives, where they gained more mainstream popularity.
The British Royal Flying Corps designed the first version of the flight jacket, which was worn by their crew during WWI. Cockpits were open air and to keep warm, pilots were encouraged to wear long leather coats with fur lined collars.
American daredevil Leslie Leroy Irvin was famous for his parachuting abilities. He was a Hollywood stuntman and with years of extensive flight experience, he reinterpreted the jacket in 1931 with his design the A-2. This became the standard US Air Force flight jacket. Since pilots spent most of their time sitting, the jacket was cut short at the waist, becoming the first waist-cropped windcheater. Using the warmest, most durable and cost effective fabrics was essential for freezing temperatures at altitude. The A-2 was generally made from horse-hide, one of the cheapest leathers available at the time, since the new wave of industrialisation meant an excess of obsolete horses. Goatskin and cowhide were also commonly used.
The original flight jackets were made from as few pieces of fabric as possible. The back panel was one piece of leather with the front having only two pieces. Each jacket required 57 separate sewing operations, a standard for their high quality, and original A-2 jackets still exist in good condition today. Collectors scour the world for these rare pieces and prices can soar into the thousands of dollars.
Upon completion of flight training, American Air Force officers were presented with a flight jacket and these soon became a powerful and enviable symbol of success and achievement. Patches, ranks and emblems were added as an Air Force man progressed through his career and the back panel was often decorated with embroidery or artwork. Some pilots hand-sewed maps into the lining of their jacket, in case they were shot down in enemy territory. Others stitched in ‘blood chits,’ papers that were translated into different languages, offering civilians a reward for their assistance.
In 1944 the A-2 was replaced with the cheaper synthetic B-15. Aeronautical advancements meant that planes could fly higher and the synthetic fabric kept pilots warmer. Flight temperatures dropped as low as -50c at 25,000 feet and precipitation would often soak the pilot. Wet leather froze but nylon kept wearers dry and ice-free. Planes were also built more aerodynamically which meant smaller cockpits and without the bulk of leather and wool, there was more room to move.
Pistols at Dawn have a range of bomber jackets available in a range of fabrics and colours, now available in store.