Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Ryan Gosling. It’s not just a list of people you wish you could be, it’s also a list of people who, over the last 70 years, have immortalised the bomber jacket in their own respective right. However, the jacket’s origins are far more humble than the rolling hills of Hollywood. Indeed, the history of the bomber jacket is a storied one, with ups, downs and more than its fair share of iconic moments.
The origins of the bomber jacket
Unsurprisingly the bomber jacket has close ties with the military, being developed alongside the aircraft churned out by the American airforce. During World War II the go-to outerwear was the classic leather jacket, worn alongside a rather fetching pair of aviation glasses and classic pencil moustache. However, as planes climbed ever higher, temperatures began to creep ever lower in the cockpit.
Despite elasticated cuffs, a wraparound collar and a warm fleece lining, airmen in newer jet aircraft soon began to notice that water from sweat, rain or spilled coffee would quickly freeze at high altitudes - turning them cold, stiff, and into more of a hindrance than a help. This prompted the development of the ‘B-15’ jacket, similar in its non-obstructive design but with a few key changes. Gone were the leather and fleece, replaced by lighter cotton and wool. A fur collar was also added to provide extra warmth. These jackets were so comfortable that even generals, stuck on the ground, were found to be wearing them – a sign of just how popular they were.
The bomber jacket as we know it
Although close in terms of design, the B-15 was not quite the bomber jacket known and loved around the world today. It was actually the precursor to the MA-1, a version of the jacket that swapped out the cotton for the lighter and waterproof wonder material - nylon.
Although nylon had been around during the war, it was mainly needed for making parachutes, the result being that no-one really focused on clothing as a priority. However, by 1949 its uses were being explored in other areas. Because nylon allowed jackets to be wind and rainproof it seemed counterintuitive to keep the great fur collar of the B-15, and the M1-A subsequently replaced this with the timeless close-knit collar still seen today.
The MA-1 was the first true bomber jacket, and although variations in colour and style have taken place since (the originals were dark blue and had a reversible orange lining to make rescues easier), all of them keep the same core features seen today.
Despite its immense popularity in the airforce and navy, the bomber jacket wasn’t a regular sight on civvy street until the late 1950s. However, they were only available to servicemen; shady black market dealers, second-hand salesmen and army surplus stores quickly began to supply bomber jackets to the young men of Europe. Following a military contract in 1963, the manufacturer of the bomber - Alpha industries - began to export the MA-1 for commercial, as well as military, use.
One of the first groups to adopt it en-masse were the Skinheads, a group spawned in the counterculture of 60s Britain. Arch-enemies of the more affluent ‘Mods’, the skinheads took pride in their predominantly working-class roots, gearing up in more practical workwear such as jeans, solid boots and military style clothing - a stark contrast to the harrington jackets and tailored suits preferred by their more middle class counterparts.
The bomber jacket fitted perfectly with their image; practical yet still a statement against the conformity of the 50s. Despite their associations with far-right politics today, the skinheads of the 60s and 70s were heavily influenced by the multiethnic neighbourhoods in which they were raised, with many huge fans of Caribbean culture, and reggae music, in particular.
Unfortunately they began to drift from their roots over the next few decades, becoming synonymous with the openly racist positions adopted by members of the punk community in the 80s. Needless to say, this was not a good time for the once noble reputation of the bomber jacket.
Throughout history, persecuted groups have time and again seized the stick taken to beat them and claimed it as their own. Normally this took the form of a name or label but in London this took the form of the resurgent LGBT community adopting the bomber jacket as a mainstay of their wardrobe. After all, what better way of demasculinising a homophobic skinhead than making his favourite accessory a gay style icon?
Following this, the bomber really took off. Fashion labels big and small started getting adventurous with textures, materials and colours – fed by the evolving grunge scene in cities such as Seattle in the US and Aberdeen on the other side of the Atlantic. Meanwhile Hip-hop artists were making the oversized bomber jacket an essential part of their look, as were women across the globe, favouring a baggy look paired with Doc Martens boots. It finally appeared as though the dubious links from the past were well and truly broken.
Heading into the new millennium
As the early 2000s progressed the bomber jacket shed its roots, moving away from the rebellious throes of counterculture and into the mainstream. It no longer mattered whether you were rich, poor, a skater or a solicitor; the appeal of the bomber jacket was far-reaching and brands soon moved to capitalise.
In an age of super-connectivity, looks and influences spread with unprecedented speed. When Kanye West was spotted in a bomber jacket in 2015, Alpha industries reported an immediate 30% jump in the sales of its MA-1, promoting high street brands to quickly produce their own ranges of bomber jackets. Hundreds of designs flooded the market - the bomber exploded (so to speak) throughout the fashion world. Nowadays it’s almost unusual not to have a bomber waiting in the wardrobe.
Evolving the Bomber Jacket
The evolution of fashion never stands still, and the bomber jacket is no different. Just as cotton replaced leather and nylon replaced cotton, new ways of improving the bomber jacket have been put into practice. The wax bomber jacket builds on its past, all the while using higher quality wax cotton to keep all the features that made it such a classic in the first place. In fact, this style of jacket only gets better with time - patterning over years of wear, as opposed to fraying like traditional nylon.
How to wear a bomber jacket
The beauty of a bomber is its ability to compliment any style. A great look for men is to pair a wax bomber jacket with a well pressed pair of neutral coloured chinos, bringing back shades of the military smartness that made it a classic in the first place. Making sure the shoulders are fitted right is key, as even oversized bomber jackets look odd when fabric slumps around a frame. Likewise, ensure that the cuff finishes at the wrist while your arm extends in front of you. If in doubt go slightly longer than shorter, as this prevents the jacket pinching around the body - both impractical and a little messy.
If you’d like to find out more about the best ways to rock a bomber get in touch or come and browse our mens wax bomber jackets. At Archie Foal we believe there’s a jacket out there for everyone; Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Ryan Gosling, who knows, maybe it’s your moment too?