High Style

The most famous of all World War II "bomber" jackets is the A-2 Charlton Hest
Sunday, June 1, 2008 - 5:00am

I stopped paying serious attention to fashion years ago. But just out of curiosity, I do check with younger colleagues every now and then to see whether my Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses are in or out of style. I'm told they're in again. That makes at least six cycles since I bought them. By the time you read this, it could be seven.

In contrast, my collection of flying jackets, popularly (but inaccurately) called "bomber" jackets, are decidedly out right now. There's even a radio commercial that labels them an '80s thing, as passй as step aerobics or junk bonds. But I know they'll come back, and I'll be ready.

There are some real-world reasons why these fashion items have withstood the test of time. Take the Ray-Bans.

I always have to chortle when I hear the hype about some new plastic-lens sunglasses having "superior UV protection." You can get total UV protection from a slab of lead, but you can't see through it.

The original Bausch & Lomb Ray-Ban glasses, designed in 1937, had superb mineral-glass optical quality that went along with their excellent infrared and ultraviolet protection. They were an immediate hit with fighter pilots, whose lives depended on seeing the enemy before being seen. I can attest to the optical quality of my Ray-Bans compared with more modern, stylish brands.

So-called bomber jackets have their own rich history. The heavy sheepskin "Irvin" jacket originated with the British Royal Air Force, and had a close cousin, known as the B-3, in the U.S. Army Air Forces. But the most famous of World War II-vintage jackets is the A-2-officially classed as "Jacket, Flying, Type A-2." You've seen them in the movies. Pilots, crewmembers and support staff involved with all types of aircraft-from trainers to heavy bombers-wore A-2s.

As I've learned more about World War II flying jackets, especially A-2s, I've developed a system for evaluating modern copies. Some give no more than a casual nod to history. Others come close to the originals, but fall down in the details. For example, the otherwise excellent L.L. Bean "Flying Tiger" goatskin jacket (since discontinued) has side-entry handwarmer pockets--a subtle no-no. When the spec for the A-2 jacket was written in the early 1930s, General "Hap" Arnold of the Army Air Corps decreed that his pilots would not be so undignified as to be seen with their hands in their jacket pockets.

For purists, there are scrupulously accurate reproductions, vegetable- or chrome-tanned using 1940s technology; with cotton-only linings (no nylon was used during the war); wool-knit cuffs and waistband (synthetics not allowed); and original WWII-era zippers, new-old stock, preserved on a shelf for more than half a century. Even the thread used to stitch these jackets is cotton-only. Expect to pay north of $700 for one of these, and try not to cringe when you learn that a jacket like yours cost Uncle Sam a cool 10 bucks during the war. No fewer than 17 clothiers throughout the country turned out tens of thousands-each factory with its particular variations on the military spec.

Want an original? You can find A-2s and other flight jackets on eBay for prices ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on condition and traceable historical significance. Or you could get lucky like me. Years ago, I came across an authentic WWII-era cloth B-15A jacket at a flea market, priced at $6. Not realizing what it was at the time, I talked the seller down to four bucks.

Mark Phelps welcomes comments and suggestions at: mphelps@bjtonline.com.

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