Finding a decorated military veteran lurking in your wardrobe would normally be a rather frightening experience, but not in the case of the bomber jacket. This ex-forces favourite started its service in the skies of North America but has since found broader appeal among style-savvy civilians. Now it’s something no man should be without.

The term “bomber jacket” has today become a bit of a catch-all term for a number of different styles of outerwear, but they’re all united by three common traits: cropped length, a roomy cut and, almost always, knitted cuffs and hem. It all adds up to make a garment that’s instantly recognisable and unlike any other jacket in your wardrobe.

Here we examine the key bomber jacket variations, the brands doing them best and the reasons why you need one of these Air Force heroes in your outerwear armoury.

Key Bomber Jacket Types

Aviator

Sandro

In the early days of flight, before plane cockpits were covered, pilots needed outerwear that could take a hammering and keep them warm at altitude. As a result, the aviator jacket was born; a heavy leather coat with a belted waist, zip-up cuffs and a thick shearling lining. The fit was boxy to allow for heavy knitwear to be worn underneath and although it’s a century old, the style is still popular today. Look to the likes of Brunello Cucinelli and Schott for some of the best options around.

MA-1

J.Crew

With the birth of the jet engine came the need for a jacket capable of functioning at higher altitudes and lower temperatures than ever before. With its nylon shell, knitted cuffs and hem and cropped body, the MA-1 jacket filled that gap, rewriting the bomber jacket rulebook in the process.

Lightweight and cheap to manufacture, yet warm and less prone to holding moisture and freezing at high altitudes, the MA-1 became the gold standard for flight jackets. It even featured a safety-orange lining to enable stranded pilots to catch the attention of overhead allies. The MA-1 took off around the world when US Air Force contractor Alpha Industries began exporting its products, and today it remains the definitive bomber jacket silhouette.

Varsity

Ralph Lauren @ Urban Outfitters

There are some who would argue that the varsity jacket doesn’t belong on this list, but to us it’s just another incarnation of the classic bomber. This collegiate classic borrows more than a little from its military counterparts in terms of design: the round collar, the ribbed cuffs and hem, the cropped fit. However, where the bomber rose to prominence in the skies, the varsity jacket earned its stripes on campus football fields. What really sets it apart, though, is its fabrication – expect leather and wool in place of nylon and a press-stud closure instead of a zip. Check out offerings from the likes of Golden Bear and Champion to see what it’s all about.

Premium

Valstar

The bomber jacket’s appeal as a fashion item has seen it reworked and updated by some of the most high-profile names in the game. In fact, you’d struggle to find a haute-couture fashion house that doesn’t have it in its permanent collection. It may have come from functional, utilitarian roots but these days the notion of a luxury bomber jacket is far from uncommon. From high-quality suede versions to those embellished with glitzy designer labels are staple pieces at all the world’s most respected retailers, taking the bomber from casual to something that could legitimately be paired with tailoring.

Best Bomber Jacket Brands

Alpha Industries

Respected military outfitter and purveyor of big coats, Alpha Industries is to the bomber jacket what Coca-Cola is to fizzy drinks. The MA-1 style was designed by the US Air Force but it was Alpha that won the contract to produce it and it has continued to do so for more than 50 years. For a classic nylon bomber, there’s no better brand out there.

alphaindustries.com

Golden Bear

American label Golden Bear is very much the Rolls Royce of varsity jackets. Yes, you’ll pay a premium, but it’s also the best money can buy. Here you can expect superior craftsmanship, quality materials and bombproof construction. This is the kind of jacket you’ll have for the rest of your life, so when you take that into account, the investment is worth it.

goldenbearstore.com

Schott NYC

If it’s an aviator jacket that’s taken your fancy, a good first port of call would be Schott NYC. This is a brand with a pedigree in making leather outerwear, and shearling-lined flight jackets are certainly no exception. The G-1 style is one of Schott’s most notable designs and looks as good now as it first did 60 years ago.

schottnyc.com

Sandro

The minimalist bomber is a staple of modern menswear and few labels are doing it better than Sandro. The Parisian brand is known and loved for its high-end take on the essentials and crafting the kind of garments you can keep coming back to year after year, decade after decade. Expect luxe contemporary takes on the bomber rendered in premium fabrications like suede, leather and shearling.

sandro-paris.com

Brunello Cucinelli

As far as upscale casualwear goes, there’s no label better than Brunello Cucinelli. The Italian brand may at the very top end of the price scale, but if you’ve got the money for it, these are some of the finest flight jackets to be found. Their leather and shearling aviator styles in particular are superb.

brunellocucinelli.com

Stone Island

Stone Island’s innovative take on outerwear design has earned it a cult following of jacket aficionados around the world. Known for its boundary-pushing dyeing techniques and unorthodox fabrics, this Italian heavyweight takes classic silhouettes and puts its own unique stamp on them. Bomber jacket styles vary from season to season but expect a mix of unlined, overshirt-style designs and weightier down-filled options.

stoneisland.co.uk

Champion

In terms of experience, there are very few sportswear brands out there with as much as Champion. The American heritage label is well over a century old and has long been a solid go-to when it comes to sourcing classically-styled sporting goods. The varsity bomber is one of Champion’s staple pieces, coming in either jersey cotton or nylon; both are great timeless options that won’t leave you with a hole in your pocket.

championstore.com

Valstar

Italian heritage brand Valstar only produce one bomber jacket: the now-iconic Valstarino. A sporty take on the classic A1 flight jacket, it was first created in 1935 and has remained popular ever since with any true in-the-know sartorialist. Featuring a button closure, two flap pockets, a short funnel neck and ribbed waist and cuffs, each season the brand render it in a number of sumptuous, seasonal fabrics including goats suede, corduroy, shearling and leather. Produced wholly in Italy by third-generation craftsmen, this investment piece is worth every penny.

valstar.it