Flight Suits Take Off
Everything You Need to Know About Proto-Pilotwear, from Random Identities to NASA to Burberry
- Text: Maxwell Neely-Cohen
The billowing mid-20th century wedding dress.
The punk rock leather jacket.
The flight suit.
They all have the same birth point, the same origin story. They are byproducts of American air power.
One of the biggest shifts in wedding dress design occurred during World War II, when silk was rationed to create parachutes. Thousands of pilots and paratroopers brought home their unused parachutes and reserve chutes from war, where the material was then turned into wedding dresses. Destruction from above was enshrined into the fabric of romantic commitment, hidden unless you knew the story of how it got there.
But unlike all the other garments descended from our battles in the sky—even the omnipresent MA-1 bomber jacket—the flight suit aggressively retains its original nature. It has this odd synergy of tight and baggy. There are zippers in every direction. Velcro. Pockets that keep being discovered. Its diagonal pockets bring to mind a creature’s eyebrows.
Whenever writer Haley Mlotek and I hang out, we almost always end up talking about how the three primary influences in fashion are war, sports, and labor. There are clothes for work, clothes for play, and clothes for killing. Style flows from the function of those three pursuits, reappropriated by those not actively pursuing them.
In AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, prodigy dropout computer programmer, Cameron Howe, sometimes wears flight suits. Played by Mackenzie Davis, she wears them with the top half tied around her waist. She wears them inside out the wrong way with the sleeves hanging off at bad angles. She wears them on top of her “IGNORE ALIEN ORDERS” t-shirt and shoplifted ringer tees, and bowling shoes scrounged from the desks of laid off employees. She alternates flight suits with World War II-era women’s Marine jumpsuits and tapered camouflage trousers. In the Season 1 promo photos, she wears a flight suit fully zipped up, like she’s ready for war. She carries her entire closet in an olive-green military duffle bag. We learn in episode 5 that her father, a helicopter pilot, died in Vietnam.
Flight suits are out of place on the ground. They are out of place on fashion runways because those are not real runways. That is the first source of their genius. They are a dissonant garment, something out of place, yet produced in such quantities they are recognizable.
“Destruction from above was enshrined into the fabric of romantic commitment, hidden unless you knew the story of how it got there.”
They are also adaptable. Flight suits are modular tapestries, their surfaces are designed to be decorated, but work just as well left blank. They can be worn turned around, reversed in several directions, with a limb subtracted here or there. They can look like a normal pair of pants or more pedestrian jumpsuit, transforming later to only reveal their true form.
The best fashion versions of them embrace these traits. Fully zipped up, the flight suits from Stefano Pilati’s Random Identities collection are undeniably flight suits, ready for a dogfight, for space, for post-apocalypse. But once you start zipping, playing, draping, they become overalls, or scarves, or dresses. They are avant-garde pants, proto-robes, makeshift skirts, and half-capes.
Early airplanes had open cockpits, so pilots tried everything they could to keep warm. Leather, sheepskin, lambswool, shearling. As airplanes went higher, pilots found themselves locked in a struggle against ever-increasing cold. They encased themselves in layers, electrically heated fabrics, created garments to accommodate parachutes and oxygen masks. Eventually the cockpits themselves became enclosed, heated, and even pressurized, but the need for a specific garment did not change. Fighter pilots, stuck sitting in cramped little bubbles, needed pockets that were accessible, with minimal movement of limbs.
Imagine sitting in cramped airplane seat, but with three more seatbelts than the one you’re used to, all tightened to an extreme. Now imagine the worst turbulence you’ve ever experienced, but you’re almost upside down, straining against g-forces, your feet are controlling the rudder and one hand is controlling the stick and with the other hand you have to retrieve a pen or map from a pocket in a few seconds. There’s a reason flight suits have so many pockets, reasons they are on legs, that the ones on the chest have those distinctive diagonal zippers.
“They are avant-garde pants, proto-robes, makeshift skirts, and half-capes.”
One of the first things you learn when you take a flying lesson is how important a pen and paper are up there. You write down the weather, wind, taxi instructions, altitude, fuel, headings, transponder codes, frequencies. A “kneeboard” is a clipboard built to be strapped to your knee. A bomber jacket has those little arm holders for pencils for a reason. Every little zipper, every stitch, every design decision is there to keep a pilot alive.
The pilot's flight suit, the mechanic's boiler suit, the paratrooper's jumpsuit, these are all related. Rugged garments birthed from industrial war machines, designed to repel oil, protect skin, and not tear off if subjected to force. Flight suits have to be both jumpsuits and boiler suits by definition. In the worst-case scenario, you have to be able to jump out of the plane. If you land and your airplane is broken, you have to be able to fix it.
The flight suit became fashion the way that all other clothes designed for battle do. Clothes designed for war are often the most mass-produced in any given society, hence “army-navy surplus” stores in every town with a population over 10,000. Clothes for war are brought home, sometimes glorified in fiction, and eventually discovered and adopted by those who have no interest in their original use. But the flight suit’s original purpose is inescapable. It proves that origin stories have gravity, that clothes can show us how far we have come, where we have been and where we might be going.
Throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s flight suits were found and worn by speed freaks, by artists, by gender non-conformists, by techno-dreamers, by punks, by travelers, by children who wanted to fly. Brands started selling and marketing flight suits to both genders as everyday wear for those of us outside of a cockpit.
Their practical real world forms kept evolving, G-suits which kept your blood from rushing to your head or feet during high-G maneuvers, adaptations for ejection seat harnesses and oxygen systems. And in their most famous moments, flight suits became not just for flight, but for space. The silver and white spacesuits are direct descendants from pressurized and heated flight suits. The iconic NASA uniform is simply a military flight suit turned blue.
Hollywood loves inserting flight suits intended for the skies of earth into space and cyberspace. Sigourney Weaver wears one in Alien, I can spot re-dyed flight suits on background characters in almost every iteration of Star Trek. They were drawn into Japanese manga and anime like Mobile Suit Gundam and Macross.
My current flight suit, a vintage K-2B drab beauty, always sits ready in a drawer. I’ve worn it for practical purposes in winter around the house, DJed a rave in it, wandered around Death Valley ghost towns in it, arms tied around my waist under a t-shirt that said EMOTIONAL RESCUE.
Every time I put it on, I feel like I’m stepping into the future. It’s an object from the past that throws you forward. Like wearing it might manifest a ruined world to wander, an alien invasion, a giant robot to step into, a trip to another planet. Putting it on summons a mission.
Yet when I wear it for long enough my mind slips backward. I remember that my grandfather wore its predecessors as a uniform up in the sky, that after the war my grandmother would wear his discarded flightwear around the house or traveling.
In June of this year, supermodel Irina Shayk dodged paparazzi on her way into LAX in the aftermath of an overly reported celebrity breakup. She wore a tan Burberry flight suit, a reinterpretation from the brand that more than a century ago invented the trench coat for British Army officers during World War I, which they wore stuck in the mud as the first combat pilots danced in the sky overhead. An unworn jacket hung folded off of Irina’s arm with a faux leather cowl that might as well have belonged to a biplane pilot. She was dressed to fly.
Maxwell Neely-Cohen is a writer based in New York City. He is the author of the novel Echo of the Boom.
- Text: Maxwell Neely-Cohen
- Date: August 5, 2019