Garment 101 is Highsnobiety’s bi-weekly homage to fashion’s most iconic silhouettes, breaking down the designs that helped shape the aesthetic of an industry. For the first edition of our series, we look through the design history of the iconic MA-1 bomber jacket.
The design ideals of military clothing — in particular its function-over-form hallmarks — have become part and parcel with everyday, civilian fashion. One silhouette that was able to transcend decades of appropriation (and rise to become a style cornerstone) is the MA-1 bomber jacket. Regarded as one of the earliest designs to really bridge the gap between military and civilian wear, the MA-1 set a new standard for functional outerwear, growing into an icon of subculture and playing a decisive role in the way style was used for self-expression.
Lee Goldup, menswear buyer at Browns
“The MA-1 […] is arguably the military item that is most engrained into everyday popular culture.”
When looking to describe the MA-1’s lineage, America’s A-2 and G-1 — collared leather jackets with large patch pockets — are often mentioned in the same breath. Designed by the US Navy in the 1930s, the G-1 was first introduced as an alternative to the Air Corps’ A-2. Hollywood eventually adopted these designs, turning them into symbols of adventure, glory, and rebellion, thanks to films like Top Gun and Steve McQueen’s The Great Escape.
Originally designed as a response to the requirements of advancing jet technologies in the 1940s — which made it possible for aircrafts to climb higher and faster than ever before — the resulting B-15 bomber jacket bears closest resemblance to the modern-day MA-1. Unlike the A-2 and G-1, the B-15 featured a soft cotton shell and a wraparound fur collar. Most notably, the B-15 employed the same slash pockets and sleeve pocket detailing used on the MA-1. The B-15’s cotton shell was later substituted for a nylon one in 1945, when materials were no longer solely needed for the production of parachutes.
Between 1949 and 1950, the MA-1 officially took flight, substituting the B-15’s wraparound collar for the knitted, elastic variation we see today. The jacket’s now-iconic blaze orange lining was introduced around the same time. Born once again out of necessity, the lining was used to assist the visibility of downed fighter pilots. This development occurred as the jacket was being produced in colors other than the military’s standard midnight blue, giving rise to the pervasive sage green.
Originally developed by Dobbs Industries for the US Air Force and Navy fighter pilots, it was not until the late-1950s that styles like the MA-1 started cropping up in Europe. Around the same time, Japan adopted the MA-1, captivated by its very obvious connection to American fashion. In 1951, Kensuke Ishizu and his brand VAN recast Japan’s post-war fashion market, importing some of the Ivy League’s most popular silhouettes (bomber jackets included) and conceiving the earliest understandings of Americana in the process. In 1963, an ancillary to Dobbs became the now-iconic Alpha Industries, which not only secured a military contract to produce the jackets, but ultimately cemented their place in contemporary fashion through sheer accessibility.
In the late-1960s, British skinheads were one of the first subcultures to appropriate the jacket as a means of non-verbal expression. The jacket was also picked up by the “mods,” before becoming synonymous with the “hard mods,” a subcultural subsidiary made up of working-class individuals. As members of the blue-collar community, the aesthetic cues of this sub-group — shaved heads, heavyset boots, functional outerwear like the MA-1 — were a reaction to requirement, much like the advent of jet technology. Such individuals would eventually go on to fall under the category of “skinhead,” a radical offshoot of the mods. Towards the end of the 1970s, however, skinheads largely distanced themselves from their humble, working class beginnings, opting instead for far-right, typically homophobic and racist beliefs.
For all the harm the resulting skinhead tribes caused during this time, the disdain most communities felt towards them — especially the LGBTQ+ community — lead their “uniform” to undergo a notable aesthetic turn. London’s LGBTQ+ communities were among the first to take a stand against the skinheads’ skewed ideas of hypermasculinity by appropriating the clothes they wore. It was the ultimate subversion of their beliefs and values, turning these symbols of pre-supposed power inside out.
In 1984, Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville further personified this appropriation, setting a new aesthetic for the MA-1 in the music video for “Smalltown Boy.” Somerville was among the first to publicly subvert the design’s homophobic connotations, removing its loom of negativity. The silhouette thus became free… a silhouette for the people.
Following this critical undoing, the bomber jacket maintained a level of popularity through the remainder of the 20th century, inserting itself as the archetypical fashion item for budding subcultures, icons of style, and, more importantly, the everyday man. From movements like alternative rock and grunge in the 1990s through to early-2000s hip-hop, the MA-1’s design — freed from the grasp of hate and bigotry — became so objectively perfect and absolute in its form, that its mass adoption was inevitable. Its genre-less appeal, refined through cycles and cycles of interpretation, came to be the ultimate blank slate; a slate with which anyone could express their beliefs.
It was not long until fashion at large took notice, propelling the bomber jacket to its now-archetypal status. Catapulted forward by fashion’s unwavering interest in military gear, the bomber jacket underwent another aesthetic turn, becoming what many would consider the ultimate anti-fashion statement. Of the houses that would present bomber jackets in their collections before it became commonplace, the piece stood out as a sort of middle finger to the refined expectations of the industry, turning couture into presentations of unadulterated culture.
When looking to construct an accurate list of the most prolific MA-1 interpretations, the name Raf Simons will undoubtedly appear. From Spring/Summer 2000’s “Pyramid” Bomber distilling the aesthetic cues of the Dutch Gabber act Rotterdam Terror Corps, to the exemplary camouflage iteration from Fall/Winter 2001’s “Riot, Riot, Riot” collection, Simons was among the first to use the bomber to blur the proverbial line between luxury and streetwear.
After Simons almost singlehandedly laid the foundation for the bomber jacket’s insertion into mainstream fashion, it was loaned a number of contemporary guises. Rick Owens used the silhouette to fashion a commercially-viable vision for the “techno goth,” Helmut Lang fetishized the design with a bondage-inspired iteration in 2004, and Vetements ushered in quadruple-XL cool under the guidance of Demna Gvasalia. The list goes on (and on).
Thanks to the efforts of some of fashion’s foremost designers, the MA-1 became a respected runway recurrent. Despite all its ties to ill-founded ideas of masculinity and segregation, it became an icon of global style, transcending a seemingly endless number of social strata.
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