The Fashion History Of Cocky Flyboys
When the first trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker surfaced back in April, the internet lit up with speculation over an intriguing new character: Poe Dameron’s scarf. Was it an infinity scarf? A keffiyeh? A homoerotic signal? No matter. It made an already impossibly cool character look light years cooler. Embedded-journalist-in-the-Middle-East cool.
Poe is the latest in a long line of cocky flyboys with sass—and style—to spare. Though the Star Wars films may take place “a long time ago” and “far, far away,” the pilots of the Rebel Alliance wear costumes rooted in modern aviation heritage. Fashion innovation has always accompanied aeronatutic innovation, which is why I included so many aviators in my new book, Worn on This Day: The Clothes That Made History. But it’s Poe’s smirking sangfroid in the face of death-defying odds that gives the pilot his perennial pop-culture appeal, regardless of which planet he calls home.
Clothes Take Flight
When the Wright brothers made their 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, they wore street clothes: dark caps and coats over white shirts, starched collars, and dark ties. Despite the December chill, neither their altitude nor speed warranted protective gear. But as aviation technology expanded dramatically over the next decade, so did the pilot’s risk—and wardrobe. In 1911, test pilot Eugene Ely wore a modified football helmet when he became the first to land a plane on a ship—the USS Pennsylvania, anchored in the San Francisco Bay—paving the way for the modern aircraft carrier. The cotton-lined leather helmet offered warmth in the open cockpit as well as protection—though not enough protection. Ely died just a few months later, at 24 years old, when his plane crashed at an exhibition in Georgia.
Air mail pilots had similarly short lifespans. One pilot recalled that members of the United States Post Office Department’s air mail fleet considered it “pretty much a suicide club.” Earle Ovington wore a French-made Roold leather crash helmet when he piloted the first air mail flight over Long Island in 1911. Air mail pilots quickly developed daredevil reputations, flying in any weather conditions to deliver the mail on time. Between 1918 and 1926, 35 air mail pilots died in the line of duty.
But the heroic exploits of another so-called “suicide club,” Britain’s Royal Flying Corps, overshadowed the feats and sacrifices of the air mail pilots. During World War I, these air “aces” engaged in surveillance, bombing, and, finally, aerial combat on the Western Front, where new pilots lasted an average of seven days. They wore fur-lined leather caps, knee-length coats, and gauntlets for warmth, but the Corps denied them a key piece of safety equipment: parachutes. The top brass feared they would encourage pilots to bail out of dogfights.
Gotta Wear Shades
Aviation technology and protective gear continued to develop in tandem. When he broke the flight altitude record in 1921, reaching 40,800 feet, US Army Air Corps test pilot Lt. John Macready “was clothed in the heaviest of furs with special helmet and goggles,” according to the New York Times. “To ensure clear vision a special gelatin was used on the goggles to prevent collection of ice.” Macready knew that success depended on protective eyewear; the previous record holder’s eyeballs had frozen and suffered permanent damage when his goggles iced over and he removed them to change his oxygen tank. A few years later, Macready helped Bausch & Lomb design the first Ray-Ban flight goggles, which inspired the antiglare “Aviator” sunglasses that went on sale to the public in 1938.
In 1927—the same year that Charles Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight rom New York to Paris—the Air Corps introduced the leather A-1 flight jacket. But it was a later version, the A-2 of 1931, that achieved iconic status by updating the original model with a zipper, a knit waistband, parachute straps at the shoulders, and a turned-down collar. The Tuskegee Airmen wore the A-2; so did Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.
Meanwhile, across the pond, the renamed Royal Air Force developed a reputation for keeping a stiff upper lip and a perfectly waxed moustache in the face of mortal danger. In the Battle of Britain, pilots had an average lifespan of four weeks. Instead of the khaki worn in the muddy trenches of World War I, they now sported handsome blue-gray uniforms, introduced in 1920 to take advantage of a surplus of blue wool originally woven for Russian cavalry uniforms before the Revolution. It was a prescient coincidence; Sopwith Camels and Spitfires soon replaced horses in the field of battle.
I Feel The Need, The Need For Outerwear
White silk mufflers became part of Japanese fighter pilots’ uniforms after they began making their own out of salvaged parachutes. Silk was naturally insulating, but thin enough to stuff into the gaps created by the thick outer layer of leather. While Warrant Officer Takeo Tanimizu confessed that pilots were “dandies,” mufflers offered practical benefits besides warmth. Imperial Japanese Navy Zero pilot Saburo Sakai credited his muffler with saving his life during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942, when he used it to stop the bleeding from severe head wounds. One pilot remembered being told in flight school that he should trail his muffler in the water in the event of a crash landing at sea, to deter sharks; another used his as a tourniquet when wounded in the leg over Burma.
The rise of enclosed cockpits and synthetic materials in the 1950s made many of the pilot’s traditional accoutrements obsolete. The Air Force canceled the A-2 because of wartime leather shortages in 1942. But the classic leather “bomber” jacket has remained popular as an alternative to a service jacket, or as a nostalgic fashion statement among civilians. It came back in a big way in the 1980s, the era of Top Gun, Iron Eagle, Firefox, Red Dawn, and other jet-fueled action-thrillers, in which the weathered brown bomber provided an old-school contrast to the high-tech hardware, replacing the black leather motorcycle jacket as the benchmark of cinematic cool. In Top Gun, Tom Cruise even wore one—accessorized with Ray-Ban Aviators—to squire Kelly McGillis around on the back of his red Kawasaki. The A-2 functions as all-purpose outerwear for those times when you feel the need, the need for speed.
More recently, the style has even caught on among intergalactic flyboys. While the original Star Wars trilogy incorporated then-fashion-friendly details like vests, belted tunics, knee-high boots (for women), and plunging necklines (for men), the newer films—including the prequels Solo and Rogue One—go all-in on skinny leather jackets, infinity scarves, and cozy arm warmers of the type you’d see at any Brooklyn farmer’s market. Visually and symbolically, they link the characters to other pilots, real and fictional, and our romance with the archetype isn’t likely to crash and burn anytime soon. With Top Gun: Maverick due in 2020, the sky’s the limit.