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Tracing the MA-1 through fashion and subculture

Skinheads, Jean Paul Gaultier, Raf Simons, Vetements and many, many more – here’s the history of that nylon bomber you own

No item better illustrates the cyclical nature of fashion than the bomber jacket – but who brought the humble MA-1 from the cockpit to the street? Who’s responsible for bringing it to the runway? And which influential British designer did Kanye base his Yeezy designs on? As it enjoys another renaissance, we trace its history.

ALPHA INDUSTRIES PUT IT ON THE RADAR

The story starts with the birth of the MA-1 flight jacket, first designed by the US Air Force around 1949. Made for the cramped cockpits and higher, colder altitude of the new jet planes, the jacket was a technical upgrade to previous leather versions, retaining functional details including a pen pocket on the sleeve and weatherproof finish in nylon. A new addition, now iconic, was the orange lining used as a visibility tool in case of rescue. In 1961, Tennessee-based company Alpha Industries won a contract to start manufacturing the jackets to US military specification, before introducing them commercially in small amounts from 1970, going wholesale with the style in 1984 and thus increasing their distribution. Now, Alpha’s ‘official’ versions can be recognised by their red ‘remove before flight’ tags – held by a keyring to the pockets.

SKINHEADS GET IN ON THE ACTION

Across the Atlantic in Britain, the MA-1 was seized upon by one particular subcultural tribe made up of working class, disenfranchised young men: skinheads. It’s not immediately apparent where the bomber’s rise began – earlier skins favoured the Harrington or a denim jacket, sometimes splattered with bleach – but by the second wave of the skinhead in the late 70s (a reaction against punk’s newfound commercialism) it was firmly fixed as an anti-establishment symbol.

Its oversized silhouette (often also burgundy or black, and creating a hypermasculine, out of proportion torso) was juxtaposed with straight legged jeans and laced up DMs, leading to the look we most commonly associate with the subculture. It’s important to note that, with a love of reggae and ska, skinheads had their roots in Britain’s newfound multiculturalism rather than a rising tide of nationalist sentiment; the look’s association with neo-fascism is the result of offshoot groups, leading to the entire subculture being tarred by the association.

Later in 1991 (with No Skin Off My Ass) and again in 1999 (with Skin Flick), Canadian underground director Bruce LaBruce would recontextualise the skinheads’ uniform into his gay pornographic narratives – subverting the hetero uniform into one rife with masculine sexual fantasy. The bomber became a contradictory sign of counterculture, racial tolerance, fetishism and nationalism.

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER AND KATHARINE HAMNETT TAKE IT HIGH FASHION

By the time the 80s were drawing to a close, the MA-1 was beginning its journey into high fashion. “Jean Paul Gaultier, in a continued bid to give the paying public what he knows they want, must be the only designer clever enough to successfully re-invent one of the Eighties most visible garments – the MA-1 flying jacket,” runs the caption in the May 1988 issue of The Face, preserved by the Museum of London. “Currently unavailable for £19.99 at an army surplus near you, but bound to be a biggie in South Molton Street come the autumn.” While several years previously he had created a red, quilted (and breasted) version, this time Gaultier reworked the iconic jacket by cropping its length for women, releasing it under his Junior line. In London, Katharine Hamnett, known for creating the decade’s most provocative slogan t-shirts, was creating her own. Hamnett’s designs were almost forgotten until a few were discovered in a vintage shop three hours outside of Milan by Kanye West, who reached out to her to borrow 300 items from her archive as reference for his Yeezy project. “Every single piece I saw, I connected with emotionally. She created something that I thought was relevant to where we are today,” he told BOF last year. Meanwhile, Hamnett has been busily reworking her own archives to new ethical standards for YMC.

HELMUT LANG AND RAF SIMONS SINK THEIR TEETH IN

Such an iconic silhouette was fitting canvas for the minimalist and modernist designers in the late 90s and early 00s, particularly Helmut Lang and Raf Simons. “He took the shape and details and then just kept adding on his own personal signatures, like the wrist bondage straps and elongated lining,” shared David Casavant of a Lang MA-1 he has in his own archive. The Austrian slimmed down the originally bulky design, creating more lightweight takes on the military staple that still played into his industrial sensibilities. Simons preferred to tap into the garment’s subcultural history, creating bombers in key collections including the Pyramid designs of Summa Cum Laude (SS00), Manic Street Preachers patched camo of Riot Riot Riot (AW01), and the logo-heavy and parachute styles of Consumed (SS03).

One of the defining bomber silhouettes of more recent years belongs to Rick Owens, who created his own longline and skinny sleeved versions, most commonly (and unsurprisingly) in jet black. Less oversized than the typical MA-1, and more wearable than his other iconic pieces (like drop crotch trousers) Owens’ take has remained popular, earning a slew of high street copies.

THE DEMNA EFFECT TAKES HOLD

The MA-1 made its first Vetements appearance in AW14 – blown up to super-sized proportions with extra long sleeves, it soon became emblematic of the buzzed about Parisian collective. Like pretty much everything else they’ve done, it sparked a surge in the jacket’s popularity on the street (and amongst other brands), and reappeared in their AW16 collection, this time with text running down the sleeves and a heavy metal inspired pentagram bearing the words ‘Total Fucking Darkness’. For their couture week collaborative SS17 show, Vetements teamed up with OG company Alpha Industries after head designer Demna Gvasalia met one of their representatives, reworking the jacket into a hooded, sleeveless iteration. “Last season, I met somebody from Alpha Industries and she saw our bomber jackets from previous seasons and she said, ‘Well you have at least 35 mistakes in the design,’” he told Dazed backstage. “That’s because they really know how to make them right.”