Leather bomber jackets are so often associated with movie characters—e.g., John Wayne (pictured), Jimmy Stewart (he actually was a pilot) and Tom Cruise in cockpits, Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen aboard motorcycles, Harrison Ford as adventurer Indiana Jones—that we let the celluloid cool factor obscure how purposeful they are. 

This wardrobe classic came to us almost from the dawn of aviation, when the jackets were de rigueur for aviators trying to stay warm in the open cockpits of the time. The design was compact enough to be worn in tight spaces and had the smooth texture that kept it from snagging on the controls or getting caught as you were trying to bail. Dubbed the A-1, it became official government issue in the 1920s, with knitted elastic wristlets and waistbands to ensure tight closures. But the early version still sported a button front. The A-2 jacketing, debuting in the early 1930s, further streamlined the garment with a zipper front and hidden snap fasteners. Horsehide in tones of russet or seal was the standard outer material. Silk linings soon gave way to cotton, and WWII pilots are rumored to have sketched maps on them in case they had to ditch behind enemy lines. Naval aviators had their own model with fur collars, which by the Korean War were known officially as the G-1 jacket. (For a look at pilot watches, turn to page 44.)

In favor of the modern flight suits, leather jackets were phased out of service (if not civilian use) in the jet age. But they came back in 1988 a few years after the release of filmdom’s Top Gun. While Cruise’s Maverick plastered his bomber with patches indicating service history, the style of actual Second World War pilots was more likely to use the space to advertise a vivid reminder of what they were fighting for: a screen-printed, pin-up girl. 

Today, the term bomber is used fairly loosely in the fashion world to refer to a short jacket, usually with a tight silhouette. Black is the new brown for leather bombers, but designers aren’t hidebound to using animal skin in conjunction with the bomber designation. In fact, some jackets labeled bombers come as—it’s hard to even type this—hoodies. If you’re in the market for something that you might actually wear while dogfighting, look to the supplier of outdoor gear Orvis. It has a selection of military-aviation-inspired jackets that have real style.

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