During the early days of flight, pilots took it upon themselves to alter, or completely ignore, the uniforms issued to them—much to the chagrin of their superiors on the ground. It was not a concerted effort at rebellion. Pilots simply had better ideas of what worked best for them up in the air.
Bearing in mind that early aircraft had open frames and offered no temperature control, pilots preferred heavy coats and fur-lined jackets to keep warm. They used opera scarves to prevent their necks from chafing when they turned their heads. An open aircraft also meant collisions with flying bugs so pilots wore helmets originally designed for football players. Boots were popular because they worked in freezing temperatures.
Aviator-inspired styles, much like other distinctive looks, came and went with the times. It had very limited acceptance in the 1950s when structure and tailoring ruled. Leatherwear then meant motorcycle jackets rather than their bomber counterparts.
But as soon as someone declared it dead, aviator style pushed itself up the evolutionary ladder. Aviator fashion transitioned to more wearable materials and bolder colors for practical urban wear. Luxury labels such as Balenciaga and Burberry regularly feature jackets and coats inspired by aviation's swashbuckling heyday. Even drop-waist pants, which are tapered at the ankles, are reminiscent of the look pilots created when they tucked their pants in their boots during flight.
One would be hard-pressed to miss the silhouette or the details in modern wear that plainly reference the items men wore when they took to the skies in the early days.
Here, we revisit the origins of aviator fashion and discover how these looks have been remixed, remodeled, and remade for the modern man.
Key pieces that make the (airborne) man
One of the most iconic images of aviation fashion is the bomber jacket. Its prototype, the A2 Bomber Jacket, was introduced in the early 1930s. It was cut short at the waist and fit snugly at the bottom and at the cuffs to keep the air out. Originally constructed out of seal skin and horsehide leather, it was designed to combat the low temperatures pilots were exposed to, especially when plane canopies were not that popular. Bomber jackets were anything but typical as their design was continuously altered by manufacturers, as well as by the pilots themselves who commonly emblazoned the backs of their jackets with their artwork and records of their tours of duty.
Leyte, Philippines, 1944—the photo of the returning Gen. Douglas MacArthur, eyes hidden behind dark lenses, has often been credited for popularizing the pilot's sunglasses in modern wear. Aviator sunglasses were invented in 1934 when US Air Lieutenant John MacCready wanted eyewear that would protect the pilot's eyes from glare and ultraviolet radiation without obstructing his view. The resulting product was known as the Type D-1. It had a plastic frame with the distinctive teardrop-shaped lenses to mimic goggles pilots originally used. A year later, the aviator sunglasses, under the brand Ray-Ban, went on sale to the public.
The history of the trench coat can be found in its details. The shoulder straps held insignias and provided extra cushioning for the butts of rifles, while the D-rings located front and back provided a place to attach equipment such as map cases. The earliest version of the trench coat was developed by John Emery and Thomas Burberry, and emerged from the introduction of waterproof wool. The trench coat was a mark of rank as only officers in the British army during World War I were allowed to use it. After the war, many of the officers added the trench coat to their wardrobe, and introduced it to civilian life.
The aviator scarf was originally an opera scarf that pilots used when they flew their open-cockpit airplanes. The scarves protected them from low temperatures and prevented their necks from chafing against the rough woolen fibers of their top coats when they would frequently turn their heads to view their surroundings. The typical length of an aviator scarf was five to six feet long, designed to wrap around the neck of the pilot without danger of being blown away by strong winds.
During the early history of flight, it was not uncommon for pilots to wear brogues or sandals. However, boots—whether of the high-heeled cowboy variety or those borrowed from servicemen—were, by far, the most popular. Pilots were concerned about keeping their feet warm as temperatures were known to drop to -40 degrees when a plane flew above 14,000 feet. One of the earliest attempts to standardize their footwear occurred when thigh-length fug boots were worn by World War I Royal Air Force pilots. They were later replaced by the 1930 pattern boot, often lined with sheepskin and rubber. This model introduced the tightening strap at the top to prevent airmen from losing their shoes in the event of an emergency landing. Later versions of the flight boot had the leg zipped or laced up, in order to allow the pilots to tuck in their flight suits into their boots.
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 3 2011.