There are certain leather jackets that are inextricably linked with certain values. For example the J-24 Buco / Schott Perfecto double breasted motorcycle jacket immediately conjures up images of a sneering Marlon Brando slouched against his Triumph motorcycle in The Wild One and as such it perfectly characterises the word ‘rebellion.’ The A-2 aviator jacket, issued by the American Airforce to officers since 1931 has been donned by such an incredible litany of real life and on-screen heroes from General Douglas Macarthur to Steve McQueen that it will be forever associated with acts of immeasurable heroism. Who can forget McQueen in his A-2 made by US brand Roughwear, in The Great Escape, his jacket draped insouciantly like a flag of defiance against his German prison camp oppressors? And throughout my life I’ve owned dozens of A-2 and G-1 (the Navy version with the fur collar in Top Gun) jackets, numerous vintage jackets and several modern ones, each time I’ve slipped one I’ve felt tapped into their rich and heroic history.
The A-2, or specifically military specification number 94-3040, was the first modern aviator jacket. It was adopted as standard issue in May of 1931, to replace the less practical knit-collar button-front A-1 jacket. Because the jackets were sourced from several different suppliers such as Werber and Aero Leathers and even civilian suppliers like McGregor and Roughwear, they could differ subtly in style but they all had the following details in common: two snap down pockets, initially without sidewarmer pockets which were considered “too civilian” for military use. The jackets also featured epaulets for displaying rank, a snap down collar which also be turned up against the cold, knit collars and cuffs.
Early A-2’s had wonderfully soft spun silk linings though these were later replaced by harder wearing heavyweight cotton drill. They were “blouson cut” where the body tended to billow out and was gathered together at a snug knit waist. The entire back panel was crafted from a single piece of leather as it was found that a centre seam would abrade pilots stuck in cockpit seats over long durations. On each side of the back was a deep pleat with an additional fold of leather to allow for maximum mobility.
Importantly the front of the jackets featured zippers, which sealed the body much more reliably from the cold. Jackets were initially made of horsehide, though it was later found that goatskin made for a suppler jacket. They rapidly became the centrepiece of the American pilot’s uniform, usually displaying patches of his squadron. During the Second World War pilots and crew emblazoned the back of their jackets with hand painted reproductions of the nose art from their planes. Often the linings of jackets had maps sewn in the event that the pilot had to bail out and find his way out of enemy territory.