Tracing the History of the Bomber Jacket to This Season’s Must-Have Shape

Believe it or not, many of your everyday wardrobe basics derive from military wear. Striped Breton tops, pea coats, and bell bottoms all evolved from Army, Navy, and Air Force uniforms that were designed with functionality top of mind. Over the years, fashion designers have re-interpreted these garments, freeing them from their original functions while relying on their history to lend a utilitarian allure. This season’s must-have silhouette, the bomber jacket, is just one example.

The nylon bomber we’re seeing everywhere this season is based on the MA-1, a design first issued in the U.S. Air Force and military around 1950. Prior to the MA-1, military men wore leather and wool shearling flight jackets (like the A-2 or the G-1, famously worn by Tom Cruise in Top Gun). But as airplane technology advanced during WWII, planes flew to higher altitudes, leaving pilots in bulky coats sweating on the ground, then freezing in a wet coat in the air. A better solution was to make flight jackets in nylon, prized for its insulation and quick-drying properties. Unfortunately, during the war, nylon was rationed to make parachutes. Once the war ended, the military started making the jackets in nylon, added the iconic orange lining so pilots could be spotted from a distance in the event of a crash — and voilà: The MA-1 as we know it was born.

The MA-1 was phased out of military use by the late 1980s, but has remained a staple of subcultural style since then. Skinheads and punk rockers in the UK adopted the jacket as part of their street uniforms in the early ‘70s, it was fashionable in ‘80s dance music culture, and has been a staple of hip-hop fashion throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s (even earning a name-check in Nas’ 2004 single “Street’s Disciple”).

In more recent years, with the revival of ‘90s street and hip-hop wear, we’ve seen everyone from Rihanna to Kate Moss wearing the MA-1 again. It reached new heights when Raf Simons designed an evening version of the coat in 2014 for Christian Dior, retailing for an astounding $6,660. In the last year, it’s made more runway appearances, with Alexander Wang, Saint Laurent, Rag and Bone, and Yeezy doing their own luxe versions. Cult streetwear brand A Bathing Ape even did a limited-edition collaboration with one of the jacket’s original military manufacturers, Alpha Industries. Any one of those will set you back hundreds to thousands of dollars. But part of the enduring appeal of the MA-1 is that there’s no beating the original — which you can still buy for less then $50.00 at your local army-navy store.

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