(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #161, July 27, 2001)
Are you in the mood to buy another leather jacket as an alternative to your black leather biker jacket? Perhaps you’re a uniform aficionado who values authenticity, or maybe you just want a jacket that fits well, looks great, and exudes masculinity. Maybe what you’re looking for is a leather bomber jacket.
The quintessential black leather biker jacket that we all know and love became popular after Marlon Brando wore one in the 1953 film classic “The Wild Ones.” The leather bomber jacket’s history notoriety goes back much further, almost to the dawn of aviation. The rigors of open-cockpit flying called for a leather jacket and often a leather helmet with goggles. (Early motorcycle riders adopted the same apparel.) During World War I many a French, British, German or American military pilot was photographed wearing his leather jacket standing beside his plane, looking every inch the glamorous (i.e. homoerotic) war hero. Actually, it worked for women, too; the few women fliers of the day wore the same outfit and still retain their status as lesbian heartthrobs.
The United States Army Air Corps standardized the design for its Type A-1 “Summer Flying Jacket” in 1927 and for the more famous Type A-2 in 1931. These are the jackets seen on American fighter pilots in photos from the World War II era. The fit was trim and snug (and flattering) in both torso and sleeves. The leather was usually horsehide, although some A-2’s were made with other hides, including goatskin. Horsehide is extremely strong and durable and, unlike other hides, is naturally waterproof.
The early 1940s saw the U.S. military abandon these leather-shell jackets for newer cloth-shell designs. The U.S. Air Force started issuing A-2’s again in the late 1980s, but these modern jackets have a fuller and less flattering fit and are made of lesser-quality leather. (Horsehide jackets are rare today because in the 1950s the U.S. government banned the slaughter of horses for leather; the only way to get horsehide leather today is from an animal that has died of natural causes.)
If you’re looking for a leather bomber jacket you have a wide array of choices. Fueled by “Greatest Generation” nostalgia, the subculture that has grown up around these jackets and other WWII-era clothing and memorabilia is truly amazing.
For around $200, you can buy a version of the modern A-2 made by Cooper, Avirex, or one of many other manufacturers. It won’t have the trim fit or quality of the original, but it will be serviceable.
At the other price extreme, you can search for a genuine original A-2 and own a piece of history. Sources include military-equipment collectors’ shows and Ebay; some of the manufacturers of reproduction jackets listed below also buy and sell originals. Depending on the manufacturer, condition, artwork, patches and traceable history, you can expect to pay $500-$4,000 or more. Once you’ve paid that much, though, you might not want to wear it on a regular basis. And unless your stature is on the small side, you might have a hard time finding an original jacket that fits you.
Some specialty mail-order manufacturers make what are billed as reproductions of the classic A-2 or A-1 (or British and German styles of the era), but the quality and accuracy of the reproductions vary widely. For example, Eastman Leather (historypreservation.com in the U.S. and Canada, eastmanleather.com everywhere else) makes its own generic version of the classic A-2 jacket as well as strict replicas, down to the smallest detail, of A-2’s manufactured by various Army contractors at various times (even using new, unused Talon zippers manufactured in the 1940s).
Eastman, based in England, provided the leather jackets seen in this summer’s blockbuster, “Pearl Harbor,” and they’ll be happy to sell you a special “Pearl Harbor” edition A-2, A-1, or RAF Battle of Britain Flying Jacket as seen in the film—as well as a Type B-1 Wool Flying Cap or Type A-3 HBT Mechanic’s Cap to go with it. Other manufacturers of reproduction WWII-era flying apparel include Aero Leather Co. (aeroleatherclothing.com, a brand of Transatlantic Clothing Co., based in Scotland) and Real McCoy’s (Japanese-owned, based in New Zealand).
A wealth of information about original and reproduction A-2’s and other jackets (the shearling-lined B-3 Winter Flying Jacket, the M-422A, the B-10, etc.) can be found at www.acmedepot.com, which appears to be a non-commercial hobby site. You’ll find a fascinating and detailed history of the A-2 and other military wear, evaluations of various A-2 and other reproductions, and listings of manufacturers and sources for original and reproduction garments.
Even if you don’t want to spend $500 or more on a reproduction A-2, uniform enthusiasts will want to spend $10 (plus $2.50 postage) for Eastman Leather’s Golden Book of Authentic Vintage Flight Apparel. Yes, it’s a sales brochure, but it’s also 110 pages of profusely-illustrated full-color reference information (presented in a great 1940s graphic style) on topics such as jacket production, leather tanning and dyeing techniques, collector data and previously-unpublished private and archival photos. Close-up comparisons show dozens of original jackets (and compare them to Eastman’s reproductions, of course). Order it from History Preservation Associates by phone at 856-489-8103 (Visa or MC) or by mail: P.O. Box 8344, Cherry Hill, NJ 08002-0344.
Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)
Friday & Saturday, July 27 & 28
Easy Rider—the classic motorcycle movie of all time—will be playing for two nights only at the Plaza Maplewood theater. Showtimes are 10 PM and Midnight on both days. The theater is located in Maplewood, one block east of White Bear Ave. & Larpenteur. Tickets are $5, a portion of which will be donated to charity. Call for details and directions.