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What Is a Bomber Jacket? The History of a Classic Jacket

Fashion trends continuously evolve, but some styles remain iconic and rich with history throughout time. Enter the bomber jacket, a piece of clothing born as a wartime necessity that became a canvas for personal expression, and even a symbol of cultural movements. 

It is a wardrobe staple that is as practical as it is stylish, offering a blend of durability, ruggedness, and sophistication. Whether you wear bomber jackets for their nod to history, versatility, or design, the style has a timeless appeal — and it might just be the next go-to addition to your closet. 

Here, we’ll explore the bomber jacket's history — from its military beginnings to its adoption into mainstream fashion — and the various styles and fabrics that have transformed it and kept it relevant. 

What is a bomber jacket?

Historically known as a flight jacket because of its origins in military aviation, the bomber jacket is a waist-length jacket that features a front zipper closure and a gathered, ribbed elastic waistband with matching knitted cuffs. 

In its original form, the classic leather jacket typically featured a simple, clean design, sometimes including two external front utility pockets and small zippered sleeve pockets. Some designs also featured shearling or fur lining for better insulation for cold flights in open cockpits.

Popular early versions, like the iconic MA-1, had an unmistakable orange lining intended to promote visibility in emergencies. You may even have noticed this detail while shopping for a classic bomber — a nod to the jacket’s utilitarian beginnings. 

Over time, the bomber jacket transcended its military roots to become a fashion staple in casual wear, retaining much of the same basic design, while featuring a variety of style variations, colors and materials. For example, Frank And Oak’s Skyline Reversible Bomber is a modern take on the original bomber.  

What is the history of the bomber jacket?

Nothing compares to the conditions of an open-air cockpit. And that’s exactly what a military bomber jacket was made to withstand. 

The beginning of World War I signalled the start of aerial warfare, the development of military aircraft — including bombers — and the training of pilots to carry out strategic bombing raids. Planes in World War I mostly had open-air cockpits, exposing pilots to freezing conditions. 

As a response, militaries developed flight jackets focused on warmth and mobility. Early military bomber jackets were mostly made from materials like leather and fur with insulated liners. Though often used interchangeably, the pivotal difference between a flight jacket vs bomber jacket is that bombers were expressly designed for the cold-weather involved in high-altitude bombing.

Why is it called a bomber jacket?

Flight jackets were originally designed to keep military pilots warm in open cockpits in World War I. The term "bomber jacket" came into use with the increasing role of bombers in warfare, particularly in World War II, and with the introduction of the B3 leather flight jacket by the U.S. Air Force. 

The B3 is considered the first true bomber jacket, designed to help bomber crews deal with exposure during high-altitude missions. These original jackets featured fur linings for added insulation and wide fur collars that could be closed with leather straps.

The A-1 and A-2 Bomber Jacket

In 1927, the U.S. Army introduced the first standard flight jacket: the type A-1. Specifications for the A-1 included a knit waistband and cuffs for better insulation, and it was usually made of horsehide, sheepskin, or goatskin leather. It also featured a button-up closure and flap front pockets. 

The A-1 was soon succeeded by the A-2 in the 1930s, which replaced buttons with a more secure zip closure and included a fold-down collar, creating the instantly recognizable silhouette we know today. 

World War II and the birth of the Iconic MA-1 Flight Jacket

During World War II, technological advancements enabled bomber and fighter pilots to fly faster and at higher altitudes. Now flying missions above 25,000 feet, pilots faced temperatures as low as -58 Fahrenheit, increasing the need for even warmer pilot jackets. Lined with thick shearling, one of these low-temperature models was known as the B-3 — the first true bomber jacket. 

Flight jacket models continued to evolve in both style and materials. The B-15 flight jacket, introduced in the 1940s, featured wool-knit cuffs and an outer dark blue shell made of nylon or a cotton-rayon blend. 

It also included a mouton fur collar and oxygen mask straps, though these design details did not carry over to later versions. The pocket on the sleeve, however, originally designed to hold the pilot's pen, became a lasting feature. 

The B-15 became the blueprint for the most iconic bomber jacket design: the MA-1. Unlike its predecessors, the MA-1 was designed for the new generation of pilots who flew in pressurized cabins. With pilots now protected from the worst of the elements,  was made from lightweight nylon rather than heavy leather, allowing for greater mobility and comfort. The jacket featured a wool knit collar and reversible orange lining, intended to increase visibility in rescue operations. 

The MA-1's practicality and functional design quickly made it a favorite, not just in the military but also among civilians. Fun fact: You can still get your hands on it to this day. 

Post-War Adoption and Fashion Integration

After World War II and the Korean War, surplus military bomber jackets became available to civilians, and the style started to gain popularity beyond the military. Celebrities like James Dean and Steve McQueen made the bomber jacket part of their iconic, rebellious style. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, the bomber-style jacket found its way into mainstream fashion, embraced by various subculture groups, including bikers and punk rockers. 

In the 1980s, movies like "Top Gun" featured Tom Cruise sporting the jacket, cementing it as a symbol of coolness and masculinity while boosting its popularity. Later, rappers like Kanye West also adopted the style, making it a mainstay in streetwear fashion. 

Bomber jackets often pop up on high-fashion runways too, proving that it’s a piece of outerwear that transcends class and categories. 

How should a bomber jacket fit? 

When choosing the best bomber jacket for you, ensure your jacket is stylish and comfortable by paying special attention to these aspects of the overall fit:

Shoulders: For a standard fit, a bomber jacket's seams should sit at the edge of your shoulders. If the seams hang off your shoulders, the jacket is too big, and if they sit on the insides of your shoulders, it is too small.

Chest and Torso: The jacket should be snug around your chest and torso, but not too tight. It should feel comfortable and not restrictive, leaving room for layers as needed. 

Sleeves: Sleeves should end at your wrist bone. Cuffs should roughly stay at your wrists when you extend your arms in front of you.

Length: The bottom of a classic bomber jacket should sit at your waist or slightly below it, neither extending too far down your hips nor riding too high. 

When people wear bomber jackets, their arms should be able to move freely without feeling constricted. Try moving them around in different directions to ensure maximum comfort. 

What materials are bomber jackets made from? 

Classic bombers have been made with high-quality leather, suede, nylon, wool and cotton exteriors. Leather was the material of choice for the earliest flight jacket variations owing to its overall ruggedness, while nylon was popular in later bomber jacket models because of its durability, water resistance and lightweight construction. 

Shearling and a variety of other furs adorned the interiors of bomber jackets designed for high altitudes and warmth. As for ground crews, they wore bomber jackets made of wool. 

Classic materials remain popular in modern bomber jackets, joined by a variety of practical and weather-resistant technical and synthetic fabrics. For example, polyester is frequently used in modern bomber-style jackets as it is lightweight, durable and easy to care for. It’s sometimes blended with materials like cotton for greater breathability.

GORE-TEX and similar technical materials are used in high-performance bomber jackets suited for outdoor activities and challenging climates. These technical fabrics are popular in athleisure styles. 

Synthetic insulation materials like Thinsulate™ add warmth without adding bulk — and can provide improved performance in wet conditions over natural materials like down.

There are also plenty of options made with faux leather, organic fabrics and recycled materials if you prioritize sustainability and ethical fashion.

What are common bomber jacket patterns and styles?

Some people are loyal to classic military jackets and bomber jacket styles. Others turn to modern variations of the classic design to get their bomber jacket fix. There are a wide variety of bomber jacket types to choose from, depending on your preferences, the occasion or the weather.

The Classic Bomber Jacket 

The classic brown leather bomber jacket, made with materials such as leather, nylon, or polyester, features ribbed cuffs, a matching waistband and collar, a zippered front, and pockets on the sleeves.

MA-1 Bomber Jackets 

The timeless MA-1 jacket has a reversible design, with an orange lining and a sage green exterior that can include a utility pocket on the sleeve. These jackets are usually water-resistant and mostly made with durable nylon.

Aviator Bomber Jacket 

Aviator bomber jackets include a larger collar, shearling lining and have a more vintage and rugged look with leather or faux leather exteriors.

Letterman or Varsity Jackets 

Varsity jackets are an early non-military variation of the bomber style of jackets that first became popular at Harvard University. These jackets have a button-up front, school or team logos, and ribbed collars, cuffs, and hems in contrasting colors.

Modern bomber jackets: new takes on an old classic

From iconic roots have come a variety of modern takes on the bomber jacket, incorporating a wide variety of fabrics, suited to different climate and fashion contexts.

Quilted bomber jackets 

Quilted bomber jackets, like the Frank And Oak Skyline Reversible Bomber, offer interesting texture and warmth and have a slightly puffier look. 

Minimalist bomber jackets 

Minimalist bomber jackets feature clean lines, no embellishments or logos, and a simple design that implies luxury. They tend to come in neutral colors and matte fabrics, such as high-quality nylon and cotton blends.

When should you wear a bomber jacket? 

Bomber jackets were originally purpose-built for cold weather protection, but modern variations are versatile enough to work in different seasons and occasions — and on different body types, too. 

Lightweight jackets can be worn in the spring or on cool summer days. Bomber jackets are also great for layering in general, so they work well as transitional pieces. You can’t go wrong throwing your bomber over a t-shirt and jeans. 

Whether you’re looking for a functional, everyday jacket for a casual outing with friends or you want to tie a dressier look together, the possibilities are endless when it comes to bomber jacket outfits.


Bomber Jackets FAQs

Are bomber jackets still in style?

Yes, bomber jackets remain a timeless and versatile fashion piece. Their classic design is adaptable to various outfits and occasions, and modern bombers include a variety of materials and styles that make them a key staple for any wardrobe.

Who made bomber jackets popular?

Bomber jackets were popularized by military pilots during World War I and World War II. In the civilian world, they gained mainstream popularity through their adoption by subcultures such as punk and hip-hop, and through celebrities and fashion icons like James Dean, Steve McQueen, and, more recently, Kanye West and Rihanna.

What is the difference between a bomber jacket and a puffer jacket?

A bomber jacket typically has a more streamlined and fitted design. It is often made from lightweight materials like nylon or leather with ribbed cuffs, hem, and collar. Some designs are more suited to moderate weather than others. 

A puffer jacket, on the other hand, is characterized by its quilted design and insulated filling, such as down or synthetic fibers, which provides warmth and protection against colder temperatures.

Are bomber jackets supposed to be baggy?

Traditional bomber jackets are functional outerwear generally designed with a fitted look around the shoulders and chest and a slightly relaxed fit around the torso. They shouldn’t be excessively baggy, but instead allow enough room for layering without compromising comfort. That said, some bombers are now designed to be oversized for a more relaxed look. 

How do I wash a bomber jacket?

Washing instructions for a bomber jacket vary based on the material used. 

Nylon or polyester can be machine-washed using a gentle cycle with cold water and mild detergent. Leather jackets should not be submerged in water, but wiped clean with a damp cloth and treated with a leather conditioner. Wool or suede should be dry-cleaned to avoid damaging the material. 

As a rule of thumb, always refer to the washing instructions on the inside label of your jacket, and handle it with care. 

The bomber jacket: a smart addition to your wardrobe

The bomber jacket's journey from essential military clothing to a timeless fashion staple underscores its enduring appeal and versatility. Modern versions include refreshing spins on classic design elements and technical fabrics that combine style and function. 

When choosing a jacket for your collection, whether you are looking for cold weather outerwear, lightweight layering, casual comfort or a statement piece, consider assigning the iconic bomber jacket to active duty. 

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