Flying high: the aviator jacket

Simon de Burton tells the story of the iconic aviator jackets from pilots in the World Wars to Belstaff's autumn/winter 17 collection

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It's a historical fact that fashion often follows form and function – and seldom was that truer than in the case of the celebrated 'aviator' jackets worn by pilots and aircrew during, between and after the wars. Belstaff was at the forefront of aviator jacket design from the beginning – from 1927 the brand offered a bespoke service for designing jackets for flying with designs that are echoed in the most recent autumn/winter 17 collection. The bespoke service was extremely popular with adventurers of the day, with aviation pioneers including Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson commissioning jackets from the Belstaff team.

However, it was actually way back in 1917, not long after the dawn of flight, that the US Army Aviation Clothing Board commissioned the first pilot jackets featuring high collars, wind flaps, snug-fitting cuffs and stout zips to protect fliers in the bitterly cold, often rain-lashed open cockpits of the day. The initial design remained in service for a decade before evolving into the Type A-1 which lasted a mere four years before the arrival of perhaps the most recognisable American model of all, the A-2.

The A-2 was made under contract in vast quantities by more than 20 different companies until 1943 when it was replaced as standard issue by the cloth-shelled, so-called 'bomber' jacket – but the classic leather A-2 never lost its following among military personnel and civilians alike, hitting the heights with appearances in Hollywood blockbusters, on the backs of celebrities and even as the choice of presidents.

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Steve McQueen, of course, wore an A-2 when he played the belligerent Captain Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape, notably when locked-up (again) in the tiny concrete cell known as 'the cooler' – oddly, however, Hilts was without his trusty A-2 when stunt rider Bud Ekins played his part for the film's legendary motorcycle leap over the prison camp's barbed-wire fence.

Other stars to have worn A-2s (or approximations of them, at least) include John Wayne in Flying Tigers, Gregory Peck in 12 O'clock High and Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan's Express. Tom Cruise also donned an absurdly be-patched version for his appearance as Maverick in Top Gun, although it was perhaps a far less earnest, less heroic wearer who really put the American aviator jacket on the fashion radar – and that was Henry Winkler's The Fonz, star of the television show Happy Days.

Belstaff's aviator jackets have rarely been off the silver screen – the brand was used in the film Amelia to make Hilary Swank's re-enactment of Earhart's life as true as possible. And in the film The Aviator, Leonardo DiCaprio wore a Belstaff jacket to represent one of the 20th century's most famous aviation pioneers, Howard Hughes. And, as Belstaff's new 'aviator' collection demonstrates, quality, form and function never go out of style – even when there isn't a war on. And, if you want to go for that undeniably cool look rocked by Cruise's Maverick while wearing both his aviator jacket and his aviator shades, Belstaff can help there, too. The new eyewear range of Daytona, Roadmaster, Panther and Archer sunglasses combine the classic aviator design with the latest titanium frames and top quality Zeiss lenses. Just add wings.

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