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From WWI to Catwalk: History of Flight Jackets

by Federica 05 Feb 2020

From WWI to Catwalk:

History of Flight Jackets


Flying Jackets were designed for pilots during World War I


Irvin is also known for inventing a static-line parachute(rip-cord system)and for being the first to do a premeditated freefall jump with his own parachute.

The testing of his new product was a success, even though he broke his ankle on landing.

He became a stunt man for the Californian film industry.


The first planes from the US Army didn’t really offer a warm and comfortable seat: most of them didn’t have an enclosed cockpit, leaving the pilots exposed to extreme weather conditions. New technologies allowed planes to fly up to a 25,000 ft altitude, reaching temperatures of -50 °C

For this reason already in 1917 a new line of clothes designed especially for aviators was introduced.

Leslie Irvin first designed a flying pilot sheepskin jacket: It was made of heavyweight sheepskin. The natural wool and fur inside provided a great thermal insulation to keep the pilots’ body warm and help them maintain alertness. The zipped design, belts on waist and neck and a wide turn up collar protected them from draughts; zipped long sleeves allowed them to wear gauntlers while the soft leather was fundamental for them to keep their mobility in an already small, confined cockpit. The first models didn’t have any pockets.



Irvine’s jackets became so popular that once he had stopped producing them after the war, people kept searching them through second hand market, and they became very hard to find.

There was also a very high request for all the leftovers from the war that contributed to their diffusion amongst civils.


In 1977 the founder of a steering wheel manufacturer company and pilot, pushed by the desire of having an original Flight Jacket for himself, contacted Irvine’s company to request the original projects and drawings so that he could make one of his own.

The company received this very well and offered him to manage the production of his jackets for commercial purposes. They now own Irvine’s company.


Evolution of Flight Jackets

Flight Jackets are part of fashion and street fashion around the world nowadays and are still in use between different police departments across the United States.

They gave birth to letterman jackets (varsity), first used in Harvard University in 1865 to reward their best football players.

As their name suggests, they had the initial letter of the college they belonged to printed or stitched on them, and were designed using the colours that most represented the school.

They were a symbol of identity for the students, who could show their scholastic achievements but also represent the ideas and values of the college/ team they belonged to. Their use was soon extended to all athletes then to all students.



In the early 2000’ different versions of the the varsity jacket started to be used by representatives of the hip hop scene, and with the help of many TV shows and Cinema, became a popular casual wear piece that is now.

It eventually evolved into the bomber jacket.




Bombers are largely inspired by G-1 military flight jackets used in WW2 and have more of a military style: lighter in weight, water resistant, equipped with many external and internal pockets, usually designed in black or dark colours. One of their main purposes when used on earth was camouflage, so brown and dark green opaque colours were common, while in the future adaptations they’ve been replaced by shiny thin materials or jeans.

Its functionality is probably part of the reason why this jacket has become so popular amongst many different cultures. First used in the 70’s by subcultures such as Rude Boys, Mods, Skinheads, Scooterboys, that often decorated it with patches and brooches displaying their slogans, their political ideas and the music that represented them. Wearing a bomber jacket at those times was a clear sign of a specific social identity, an act of rebellion of the “working class” towards the state.
It is still largely used in the punk and skinhead cultures, while it became an accessory for the grunge and hip hop scene.

Thanks to the influence of various rappers, celebrities and movies, and to the simplicity and practicality of this jacket, it is still a fashion trend all over the world


Bomber Jackets in Movies

Tom Cruise in Top Gun (1986)

Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting (1996)

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