NEW YORK – Before they became staples of the runway, bomber jackets, flight suits and protective aviator sunglasses were born in the cockpit of an early – and cold – airplane.
They were necessary in drafty flying machines with metal doors that were a struggle just to keep closed. But as aviation pioneers such as Amelia Earhart brought their style around the world, they sparked fashion trends that have been with us ever since.
The leather bomber jacket shown in the new Earhart biopic “Amelia” starring Hilary Swank marries function and style in a way that finicky fashion has embraced through the years, says Franco DiCarlo, executive vice-president of Belstaff USA, the brand that collaborated with the filmmakers on key wardrobe pieces.
“A lot of the aviator jackets are timeless in style and they perform under a great variety of weather. … They say fashion is cyclical, but this is timeless,” he says.
But when the styles landed in the 1920s and ’30s, it was uncharted territory, allowing for a woman like Earhart to help craft the image and vocabulary of a flyer’s style, says “Amelia” costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone.
“The whole history of aviation was really being invented and part of that was inventing the new language,” she says.
At first pilots borrowed silhouettes from horseback riders, race-car drivers and motorcyclists, later adapting jodhpurs, goggles and the zip-front leather jackets, among other items.
Early on, Earhart wore these things, too, but she had a lifelong interest in fashion, so many of the more stylish, more feminine adaptations came from her. At one point, she had her own clothing line – a second career to support her flying.
“She wore clothes with a natural ease and elegance,” says Maimone. “I did love her evening gowns as much as I loved the flightwear. I loved the combination of the super practical flight clothing and the elegance of the eveningwear. I loved that it was one closet for the same person.”
The movie’s director, Mira Nair, says time, effort and money went into capturing the right visuals of Earhart’s time. “We wanted to make the costumes seems as modern as they were then. … We didn’t want it to look like a ‘costume movie.’ We wanted wearable, practical clothes with great style.”
She was a fan of a white silk charmeuse tank top and winter-white trousers Swank wore, as well as an open-back, pewter-coloured gown. “So often I moved the camera to shoot the dress and the plane. The plane was horizontal, but I wanted to show off the full figure of Amelia because there’s such enjoyment of her silhouette.”
Nair adds, “If I had the figure, I’d wear the brown-leather catsuit thing she wore.” She’ll still have her chance: slim jumpsuits in stores this past spring are back in designer collections for 2010.
And Nair is still mulling a leather bomber and tie-up boots for her shopping list this season. “I’m pretty amazed to see what’s happening in fashion magazines. In the last six weeks, I’ve seen so many with the aviator look.”
The vintage bomber silhouette has a cropped length and slim sleeve – and it looks great with boyfriend jeans and heels or a maxi dress, says Belstaff’s diCarlo. The company is currently offering it in both a sleek, urban-vibe black calfskin as well as broken-in cognac. Belstaff said it is selling exceptionally well, after similar success offering a version of the leather jacket in “The Aviator,” the 2004 Oscar-winning movie.
Aviator eyewear was also born of necessity for pilots who needed to be shielded from both the sun and external agents.
The Italian brand Persol has been making aviator eyewear since 1917, and some pilots still choose Persol, says brand manager Chiara Bernardi, but new lenses with photochromic and polarized lenses allow for protection without the original, more gogglelike look.
Of course, most people wearing contemporary aviator sunglasses, with their trademark fuller lens and flatter frame, aren’t battling tough elements. “We’re more on the ‘completing-your-outfit’ part of life now,” Bernardi says. “It’s a fashion accessory, but the aviator shape influences the whole industry.”
DiCarlo says aviator and motorcycle looks become more influential in times like this, when tastemakers and consumers have a craving for authenticity, longevity and value.
“A leather jacket is something we’ve done for 85 years,” DiCarlo says. “It comes and goes in fashion, but it plays in our favour that it’s a ‘trend’ that kind of lasts forever.”