A ‘bomber’ has become an umbrella term for a jacket practically every man has in his wardrobe these days: short, zip or button-up, cropped hems, knitted cuffs, a little attitude and a lot of versatility. However, there are many variations of the bomber jacket and this broad, undefined brushstroke it’s been painted with belies its original functionality and purpose; which was to serve pilots in the military.
But the bomber jacket – in all its mutations – has become much more than a relic of time-gone-by; it’s shed its war-time skin and become one of the most popular outerwear pieces of all time. It has featured in numerous classic films, been adopted on and off-screen by everyone from Marlon Brando to Ryan Gosling, and played a part in the uniforms of countless subcultures and style tribes. In short: never in the field of menswear has so much been owed by so many.
“The [bomber jacket’s] silhouette is universally flattering,” Alexandre Mattiussi, founder of young Parisian label Ami, tells FashionBeans. “It’s cinched in at the waist while keeping a broad shoulder, and it’s also immensely practical. It’s perfect as a mid-season piece – not as heavy as a coat and can be layered, so it’s versatile.”
The History Of The Bomber Jacket
The bomber jacket is just one of many menswear pieces with a heritage entrenched within the armed forces. Similar to the peacoat, trench coat and parka, the bomber has a timeless appeal that transcends seasons and trends; it was born out of military means and has adapted to form part of popular culture.
The first iteration of this endlessly cool jacket can be traced back to the 1920s. Before this, airmen wore longer, heavyweight shearling jackets that kept them warm – cockpits were open-air at this point – but were largely impractical. The hem needed to be shortened to allow increased movement when piloting, cuffs needed to be knitted to restrict airflow up the arms, and large pockets needed to be added for essential airborne items.
America’s answer was the US Army Type A-1, which was first issued in 1927. From then on, the basic bomber recipe was set. In the successive years, the A-1 was altered and reinvigorated in various forms, from the A-2 that followed in 1931 with its zip, button snaps and leather collar, to the nylon MA-1 introduced in the 1950s.
The bomber’s popularity with civilians is not surprising, especially when you consider the cultural icons pictured in one. Think Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape or Tom Cruise in Top Gun. These films placed the bomber jacket in starring roles.
The bomber has also long been associated with skinheads, from the 1980s-era subculture itself to Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton wearing a khaki version in the opening scene of Trainspotting. More recently, style icons from Ryan Gosling to Kanye West to David Beckham have worn it, the jacket if your look is preppy, hip-hop, Scandi, sports luxe or streetwear.
Key Bomber Jacket Designs
The A-1 was the first mass-produced flight jacket to be issued to the US Army in 1927. Early pieces were made from tough sheep leather and lined with cotton, with later models being cut from goatskin or horsehide. Uniquely, the jacket featured a button-up front, a characteristic much less common today. A knitted collar, cuffs and waistband were also integral to the jacket’s flyboy cool, as were the two large flap pockets at the hip.
Irvin Flying Jacket
The ‘Irvin’ RAF Flying Jacket was Britain’s answer to the US bomber and the first iteration of the shearling pilot jacket that would keep thousands of pilots warm during the Second World War. First produced in 1931, the Irvin was fully lined and featured a wider fit to accommodate heavy knitwear underneath. Despite being close to a century old, its belted waist, zip-up cuffs and large collar continue to inspire designers today.
The successor to the A-1 bomber, the A-2 differed by boasting a zip front as opposed to buttons, a leather collar as opposed to knitted, and shoulder epaulettes. It remains one of the most recognisable bomber jacket styles, though more modern takes have removed the epaulettes on the shoulders and simplified the pocket designs, giving the jacket a neater silhouette and more contemporary feel.
Based on the M422A model that came before it, the G-1 jacket of the 1940s looks similar to the A-1, with the most notable departure being the addition of a sheepskin collar. Another classic bomber style that has been replicated numerous times in the decades that followed it, the G-1 was utilised in the military even up until the Korean War in the 1950s. Menswear doesn’t get much more masculine than this.
First taking flight in 1950, the MA-1 re-wrote the bomber rulebook. A consequence of cost-saving measures and the rise of jet air travel, the MA-1 was made from lightweight nylon and featured a distinctive bright orange lining to allow stranded pilots a way to become more visible to allies. Characterised by a simple zip front, slanted flap pockets and a zip arm pocket, the MA-1 is the most recognisable bomber style and its subtle swagger has seen it widely adopted in fashion and streetwear.
While collegiate jackets shouldn’t technically fall on this list, it could be argued that early bombers heavily influenced the design and, certainly today, they fall under the category according to many designers.
The Modern Bomber Jacket
Unless you’ve been taking cover under a soundproof rock, you won’t have failed to notice the bomber jacket flying high in recent years. Where other trends run out of fuel after a few seasons, designers continue to pull on the jacket’s practical appeal years after their reintroduction to the masses.
According to Karen Hall, head of design at contemporary menswear label FoR, it’s the bomber’s timeless nature that has ensured it remains a permanent fixture. “It’s probably the most versatile outerwear style, which is another reason why it has stood the test of time,” she says. “It’s an iconic menswear piece that over the decades has remained a key jacket in every man’s wardrobe.”
One of the most influential modern designers when it comes to bomber jackets is Kim Jones. During his seven-year stint as the men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton, Jones propelled the bomber into the limelight, showcasing everything from an orange silk version for spring/summer 2015 to metallic and nylon styles for his final autumn/winter 2018 show.
Other high-end labels, including Burberry, Lanvin and Valentino, started to back the bomber from around 2011, while a second wave of bombers came when cult brands like Vetements and Balenciaga showcased oversized versions of the MA-1 that have since become a staple streetwear silhouette.
Depending on the iteration you go for, it’s possible to authentically reference the jacket’s air force history. But with a slew of designers from high-end to high street interpreting the bomber season after season, it can be worn in whichever way you choose; from formal looks with a shirt and tie to minimalist ensembles.
“Over the past few seasons, [the bomber] has gone through somewhat of a transformation with [styles] now available oversized, fitted, hooded, streetwise or smart,” says Mr Porter style director Olie Arnold.
Ryan Gosling wearing a bomber jacket in Drive (2011)
The Weeknd perhaps summed it up best, when he told Billboard in 2017, “For my generation, the bomber jacket is like a replacement for the suit jacket. It’s a piece that men wear every day, and it’s something that I would wear for any occasion, whether it’s on the street or going to an awards ceremony. For me, bomber jackets are smart, but they are also street and have a lot of attitude.”
Bomber Jacket Style Tips
Stick To The Classics
The proportions of the bomber jacket shift subtly from season to season according to trends but, as Ami’s Mattiussi says, a classically shaped bomber in a timeless fabric is always going to last. “Layered with a roll neck, or over an untucked shirt is how I imagine they’re worn by the cool kids.”
If In Doubt, Go Minimal
While details such as zipper pull rings and map linings once served an essential purpose, some of the best modern takes on the bomber jacket have such additions stripped away. The primary benefit of skewing minimal with your jacket is that it becomes even easier and more versatile to wear, especially if you’re attempting to make it smart.
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Owing to the neat lines of the bomber’s cropped body, it’s a jacket that can serve as the perfect co-pilot to a range of trouser fits. However, arguably it looks best when balanced out with slim-fitting and cropped styles, either in a tonal or contrasting shade.
Experiment With Tailoring
With traditional suits falling out of favour in recent years thanks to menswear’s new relaxed direction, the bomber jacket has stepped up and established itself as a viable alternative to full tailoring. Try using one in place of a blazer with a T-shirt or lightweight knit and finish with sneakers.
Navy Minimal MA-1
Undoubtedly the easiest form of bomber to wear, a pared-back version of the MA-1 jacket in navy should be at the top of your list. With a slimmer body and no zip pocket on the upper arm, this minimal take can be worn with selvedge denim, tailored trousers, tracksuit bottoms, wide-leg chinos – the choice is yours.
A leather jacket might seem like an obvious choice, but care should still be taken when choosing to invest. It’s easy to get it wrong with leather, so aim for a quality hide that will get better with age, in a fit that is slim but not restricting.
Suede has never really been unpopular when it comes to outerwear, but it’s never been particularly convenient either. Don’t let constant fears of sudden downpours put you off though – few jackets are cooler than a suede bomber. This is also your chance to play with colour because the dull lustre of the fabric somewhat mutes brighter tones.
The college or varsity jacket is an easy way to inject a youthful edge to any look – simply throw one on over a pair of jeans and trainers, and you’re good to go. This preppy style has had something of a renaissance in recent years, with numerous brands taking the classic template and making it their own.
Outerwear always offers a good chance to make a statement, and the bomber jacket is no different. Whether you opt for an embroidered souvenir jacket or go oversized, just remember to keep the rest of your outfit clean and simple to avoid flying into comedy territory.