Characterized by its boxy fit, knitted collar, and orange lining, the iconic design of the MA-1 bomber jacket is something we've become accustomed to seeing everywhere from high street stores to high fashion runways. It's an American contribution to fashion akin to Levi's jeans or Champion sweatshirts, but over a 70-year time span, the jacket has truly lived a thousand lives.
Countless groups with varied beliefs, such as football hooligans, ravers, gay communities, activists, and punks, put the bomber jacket's design on the map, either embracing or subverting its masculine connotations.
"I forget there was a time, even when I was growing up in the mid-2000s, when people wearing bomber jackets were often seen as sketchy," says Michael Kardamakis, the owner of the menswear archive ENDYMA. "Gabber ravers and post-punk-type personalities were wearing them... bomber jackets are so popular now, it's hard to think that it was an edgy thing to wear."
First designed for the U.S. Air Force, military surplus-raiding subcultures have given the MA-1 a storied history on the backs of both heroes and villains (sometimes at the same time) that has acted as a rite of passage for its status as a fashion staple.
As Lee Goldup, Menswear Buyer at Browns, previously told us: "The MA-1 [...] is arguably the military item that is most engrained into everyday popular culture." Like so many other military inventions, such as the parka coat or cargo pants, what began as a purely function-focused design has become so much more.
The MA-1 Jacket's Military Background
Before you reach the formula for the classic design of the MA-1 bomber jacket we know today, there were over 30 years of developments to the flight jacket by the U.S. Military, made necessary by advancements in aviation. It all starts with the A-1, the very first American flight jacket issued in 1927, but soon updated to the now-famous A-2 bomber jacket, known for the folk-art painted backs that were popular with USAAF bomber crews during WW2.
These are the blueprint for all the leather-bodied flight jackets that came after, adopted by Hollywood in films like Top Gun (1986) and Steve McQueen's The Great Escape (1963) — until 1943 saw the launch of the B-10.
Designed with a fur collar, and the same patch pockets as its predecessors, what sets the B-10 apart is that it was crafted with a cotton shell rather than leather. And as advancing jet technology called for warmer and more lightweight fabrics, it was followed up by the MA-1's closest relative, the nylon-clad B-15 with its more practical slanted pockets.
First launched in 1953, the MA-1's big development was a switch from a bulky fur collar to its trademark knitted collar that allowed pilots to turn their heads more easily when wearing a helmet and came to be its signature feature. Then as the military continued to develop the jacket, the early '60s saw all of the attributes of the MA-1 we know today added, including the now-iconic orange lining so that pilots could reverse the jacket and be found after crashing.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, important changes were being made. In 1959 three Tennessee-based military clothing manufacturers, Dobbs Industries, Superior Toggs, and Rolen Sportswear merged to form the now-iconic Alpha Industries which soon after secured a military contract to produce the MA-1 as demand skyrocketed during Vietnam and Cold War.
But life as the default jacket for pilots was only the beginning of the story for the MA-1, and as production ramped up so did its visibility in military surplus stores.
Becoming a Worldwide Subcultural Icon
"Lots of different very small, niche communities have taken the MA-1 and iterated with it in their own way. There are probably hundreds that I don't know about," says Rich Birkett, seller of vintage military gear through The Major's Tailor. Its wide-ranging appeal has meant that bomber jackets have been part of the uniform for countless groups across different continents, from skinheads to gabber ravers.
One area whose love affair with the bomber jacket sometimes gets overlooked is Japan, and it's one of the first examples where flight jackets were appreciated beyond the military. The region's post-war love of American fashion most famously included typical Ivy League-inspired styles such as loafers and oxford shirts. However, it also included American military wear and bomber jackets which would be styled together with more formal, preppy pieces as part of a '60s youth counterculture.
Underground groups also started to discover the MA-1 in Britain, although styled entirely differently. The Mods, a jazz-listening, Italian scooter-riding, and rocker-fighting subculture birthed in London during the late '50s had established military wear as part of its uniform with its signature green parka coats. But there slowly started to be a divide between the more affluent and working-class members of the group, which were first called hard mods and then later, skinheads.
Growing up in multicultural and deprived areas of the UK, the first generation of skinheads are known for listening to ska and reggae music, and incorporating elements of Jamaican Rudeboy dress into their look. However, as time went on, the end of the 1970s saw the second wave of the subculture embrace right-wing and racist beliefs while cementing a uniform of Dr. Martens, skinny jeans, bomber jackets, and, of course, a shaved head.
The look spread to different regions, including America and Russia, often attracting those with racist and homophobic views. However, the beliefs of the original skinheads (nicknamed the "spirit of '69") did live on. Badges sewn onto jackets, such as those by the New York group Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP), identified liberal-thinking skinheads and the color of your MA-1 was also significant: "Olive green tops the color charts, although black ones are most popular with white power skins ironically enough," writes George Marshall in Spirit of '69: A Skinhead Bible (1991).
But it was only once London's LGBTQ+ community started adopting the bomber jacket, subverting the skinhead's skewed ideas of hypermasculinity by appropriating the clothes they wore, that it really started to be freed from hatred. "Part of why the MA-1 is so popular in gay culture is because it has this connotation of toxic masculinity. It makes it fun to appropriate and reclaim," says Kardamakis.
In 1984, Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville was among the first to publicly defy the design’s homophobic connotations, setting a new look for the MA-1 in the music video for “Smalltown Boy,” and since then it has been picked up by gay subcultures around the world. For example, Birkett notes that "in Berlin, there's a gay subculture that wears bondage and MA-1s," while in North America it became a way of fetishizing hypermasculinity.
Largely freed from the grasp of hate that skinhead culture had brought to the bomber jacket, it would go on to be worn by movements such as alternative rock, grunge, hip-hop, Rotterdam-based ravers, grime... and that's only skimming the surface.
The MA-1 Turns Commercial, and High Fashion
As the bomber jacket started finding itself worn by different groups, designers such as Katherine Hamnett (who used her boyfriend's ex-military jacket as the blueprint for her own version) and Jean Paul Gaultier started to take notice. But it really hit the big time in high fashion in the late '90s and early 2000s, thanks in large part to Raf Simons, Issey Miyake, and Helmut Lang.
All three designers used the MA-1 as the blueprint for outerwear that has since hit grail status: Simon's camouflage design from Fall/Winter 2001’s “Riot, Riot, Riot” collection famously fetches around $50,000 on resale platforms, Miyake's Parachute Bomber has been worn by everyone from Robin Willams to Kendall Jenner, and Lang's bondage bomber jacket remains a fashion archivist's grail.
"What makes these bomber jackets so collectible is that it's something so firmly grounded in the tradition of menswear and the [high fashion] designer is just adding their aesthetic. It reinforces both worlds at the same time," says Kardamakis, the owner of the largest collection of Helmut Lang designs.
Since then, it has gone through countless re-interpretations by designers. "Like a pair of Converse or Levi's, it's a basic silhouette that everyone keeps on creating new iterations of. I've seen everything from Vetements' huge padded ones to very, very slim cuts, to different colors and prints," Says Birkett ."It's a real canvas for people to play with."
Today, designers continue to find new ways to tamper with the classic silhouette of the bomber jacket and riff off its long history — recently, Loewe's divisive padded bomber hit headlines thanks to celebrity co-signs and some classic internet trolling.
Having transcended decades of appropriation, the MA-1 has not only found its peace as a universally appreciated silhouette but also as a vehicle for experimentation.