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Bomber Jackets Were Not Always Silk, Did Not Always Cost $1,890

You could be more than a street style hero in a bomber jacket

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

I recently happened upon an article in Vogue that promised me that I could be a "Street Style Hero" in a silk bomber jacket. They noted that, "It’s been a stealth trend on the street style circuit for the past few seasons but by the end of the autumn/winter ‘16/’17 shows, which have just started in New York, we’re betting this one will be a blockbuster."

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It was? It is!? I had no idea. But apparently Saint Laurent knew because it is producing them for $1,890.

I did, however, know a little bit about the history of silk bomber jackets which, if possible, pertains to people more heroic than Cara Delevingne or whichever street style trendsetters are currently sporting them (not that Cara’s eyebrows are not an inspiration to us all.)

Image: Georgie Wileman/Getty

The original bomber jacket was developed for the U.S. Air Corp, who made the A2 bomber jacket standard issue in 1931. The original version was slightly different than the models on the runway today in that they were made with seal skin and lined with cotton. Seal skin was fantastic in terms of keeping of the wearers warm and dry, but it was also made out of the skins of seals and people thought, "oh, on some ethical level I might not even have previously considered, I am a little uncomfortable wearing this."

No! Not really. It was 1931. No one thought that. But the army’s ranks were swelling, and it became increasingly difficult to get enough seal skin to outfit all of the new recruits. So they shifted towards making them out of horsehide. And look, it seems like these jackets would at least keep people very warm. And for a while, they did. But by the 1940’s, as jets began to fly higher than ever before, they reached heights where it got so cold that if the jackets became wet they would freeze to the user’s bodies. That is obviously not a great thing to have happen if you’re flying an airplane during wartime (or any time, but especially then).

In addition to having no insulation, cockpits were tinier than ever before, so bulky materials took up more space than the wearers would have liked. So by the 1950's the MA1 flight jacket was introduced. It was made out of synthetic nylon material with polyester filling. The result was a jacket that was incredibly warm (intended for temperatures 14 to 50 degrees) and didn’t get wet the way the original seal skin or horsehide ones did — or at least, didn’t freeze when they were wet. They also originally featured an orange lining which pilots could help use to signal to passing planes for rescue if their plane crashed.

Image: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

One especially cool thing about bomber jackets was that they were often personalized. You’ve probably seen ones with stitching on the back, or painting if you’re dealing with the older models. That seems like something that the air force wouldn’t have allowed, but John Conway, who worked at the militaria-focused Manion’s International Auction House in Kansas City explained to Collector’s Weekly that, "The flyers were allowed to go to town blowing off steam because they were dealing with death in a much more immediate sense than the infantry were… So there was a little bit more leniency in that regard than there would have been with ground guys. The officers figured, ‘Well, if this guy wants to paint a naked lady on the back of the jacket, what good is it to try to stop him? He could be dead tomorrow morning.’"

The images ranged from naked ladies to lucky charms to more intimidating imagery, like skulls and crossbones. There are a surprising number of cartoon animals riding bombs which was… inspiring, I guess? I feel like if I were flying a plane I would be disinclined to relate to Daffy Duck sitting atop a missile, but, hey, whatever works. Conway notes that a lot of flyers hung their jackets up never to be worn again after the war because "you wouldn’t want your mom to see it."

Image: Kirstin Sinclair/Getty

Given that nylon was more difficult to paint on, flyers began using patches, many of which were hand-made and featured elaborate designs. Interestingly, Disney artists designed many of the patches, which is not only a cool fact, but kind of a horrible reminder of how young the men going off to war were. Some men had stitching on the back of their jackets, and you might see some with a visual of, say, a giant dragon across the back. Those designs had a lot to do with where a soldier might be stationed. Womenswear designer Ashlea Holdsworth explained to Vogue those jackets "were a precious memento for American Soldiers in Japan after WWII. The jackets are embroidered with ornately hand-crafted designs. The designs mix both Eastern and Western themes, sometimes sitting classic Japanese designs side by side with American eagles and military iconography, making them the original fashion collaboration."

And while the soldiers might not want their moms to see their jackets after the war, a lot of their girlfriends or wives donned them proudly. Probably especially if the pin-up girl on the back had been modeled after them.

No wonder that today you see jackets with empowering sayings emblazoned on the back of them – but this time they’re for women, not for men. Take, for instance, this jacket that declares, "not your baby" or this one that features a beautiful pink pony running free across the plains. The fact that they’re made of silk will, admittedly, probably not protect against the elements nearly as well as jackets with nylon exteriors, but the style and personalization remain the same. And, if they make you want to get out in the world and kick some ass, well, so much the better.


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