Wartime Chic: Three Every Day Essentials Originally Designed for the Function of War

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Wartime Chic: Three Every Day Essentials Originally Designed for the Function of War

They say that the key to invention is the need for function.  The same goes for fashion.  Most of what is modern day fashion is derived from functional design.  More specifically, it is amazing how much of our modern day essentials come from military need.  From tampons to duffle bags, sunglasses to outerwear, so much of our current every day life has evolved from war based design.  Below are three of my favorite every day wardrobe essentials that were originally designed for wartime.


 1. Aviator Sunglasses were Originally Designed for…Aviators

Sunglasses have taken many forms since the beginning of human history.  Evidence of protective eyewear has been found to date back as far as 1000CE, belonging to the prehistoric Inuit period.  During this time, ancient residents of the Alaskan and Canadian regions used bone and wood with slits carved into them to protect their eyes from snow blindness.  There is also evidence that the openings were coated in soot to further protect from the bright sun.  Ancient Egyptians line their eyes with heavy liner, and while the look is iconic, it was mostly functional as protection from the sunlight.  The first pair of intentionally darkened glasses came about in 12th century China.  The crude design was only available to the rich and was mostly used by Judges to hide their emotions during trial.  It wouldn’t be until the early 1900’s that glasses designed specifically to block the sun would officially be invented.  Sir Williams Crooks was a British chemist and invented the cerium-based material that gave 100% protection from UV rays.  The timing was perfect because during WWI, war pilots were struggling with the blinding light of the sun while flying through the higher altitudes.  To solve this problem, The Aviator sunglasses were created by optics manufacturer Busch & Lomb, using Crook’s UV blocking technology.  The teardrop shape was designed to protect the entire eye, covering the whole eye socket completely.  The glasses quickly became an essential element to the military uniform. 

By 1929, mass production was made possible by Sam Forrester who launched his plastics manufacturing company in Massachusetts.  He produced many products, including celluloid.  This, along with the perfection of the plastics molding machine, made it possible to mass produce the glasses by the end of WWII.  By 1937, millions of sunglasses were sold throughout the U.S.  The aviator shape grew in popularity over the decades as celebrities consistently sported the style.  It remains one of the most popular shape in the industry today.    


2. The Modern-Day Trench Coat was Primarily Worn by Soldiers in the Trenches During WWI

While WWI boosted the popularity of what is known today as the Trench Coat, the garment was actually invented nearly 100 years before.  Originally known as a “mack”, the coat was created by inventor Thomas Hancock and chemist Charles Macintosh and was created by coating the fabric in rubber to protect the wearer from rain.  The rubber kept rain out but also retained sweat, so the garment was known to be rather smelly, despite it being worn primarily by the upper class.  By 1856, Thomas Burberry worked to improve the fabrication, creating an item that breathed better while continuing to repel water.  His company and product growing in popularity, by 1879, Burberry invented the Gaberdine fabric which resulted in the best version of the garment yet.  Ideal for multiple terrains and any type of weather, the coats were worn by British military officers.  The coat’s design featured a double breasted, knee length shape, a broad collar, and a belt.  As Burberry became the official supplier of the armed forces during WWI, the coat evolved to meet military needs.  They began to include D-rings on the belt, a flapped pocket to allow easy access to a pistol, epaulets to display rank and a storm shield.  The coats were restricted to the officers, while lower ranked soldiers were required to wear “great coats”, a poor-quality version of the trench coat.  It was heavier, usually made from wool and longer.  Once the practicality of the Officer’s coat was realized over the burden of the great coat, it became a staple item for all soldiers in the trenches, thus deeming the design with the universal name, the Trench Coat. 

As mass production gained a foothold in the allied countries, civilians began to have access to the design, and they wore it as a show of solidarity for the soldiers fighting the Great War.  After the war ended, the style remained popular among military officers and civilians.  Hollywood glamorized the look and mass marketers made the otherwise pricey item available at lower costs, allowing the garment to grow in popularity among the masses.  Burberry continues to dominate the industry with their iconic design, but the trench coat they had originally created for war has become a staple item within the everyday closet. 


3. Bomber Jackets were Designed to Insulate Air Force Pilots

The modern-day bomber jacket is one of the most popular types of outerwear to date.  It can be found in various materials and styled in a variety of ways from runway chic to urban street style.  However, like many items, the design stems from the need for function over fashion.  During WWI, most war planes did not include an enclosed cockpit.  This required the pilots to wear a garment that would keep them warm while flying at high altitudes.  The original flight jacket was made with leather, the strongest, most durable fabric at the time, and lined with fur to insulate and provide heat.  The waistband and wrists were cinched tight to keep that heat trapped and keep the pilot warm while he flew.  With their pilots flying at 25,000 feet where temps dropped as low as -60F, the flight jacket was widely distributed throughout the U.S. armed forces.  Moving into WWII, cockpits got smaller, and the jacket was redesigned to the B-15 Jacket, a slimmer version of the original flight jacket design.  This evolved into the MA-1, which is the version we commonly recognize today.  In this version, the fur lined collar and tightly cinched wrist cuffs were replaced by knitted, elastic collars and bands. This change allowed more room for wearing parachute harnesses.  They were also decorated with a bright orange lining for use in rescue purposes.  While details may update over the decades in order to match the evolving needs of an Air Force member, the general shape has remained untouched.  Fitted at the waist, neck and wrist, the jacket billows out around the body, allowing for quick movement without losing any body heat essential for the wearer. 

It wasn’t until well after the end of WWII that the bomber jacket would become a popular item among the masses.  1960’s British counterculture thrust the garment into to limelight as British skinheads began sporting the style as a statement of anti-militaristic expressionism.  It eventually trickled into the blue collar working class as the durable construction and affordability became realized.  The look eventually made its way to the big screen by way of Steve McQueen, who wore the style in many of his films.  To emulate his classic cool vibe, the jacket became a trend piece throughout the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.  While the look waned in the 90’s, making way for the grungier aesthetic of the decade, the jacket saw a resurgence when Kanye West influence the style by wearing a windbreaker version of the garment on a nearly constant basis as his career grew in the 2000’s and 2010’s.   Now, 100’s years since its first functional design, the jacket has barely changed and remains timeless and essential to our wardrobes, regardless of style, income, or occasion. 


Ever evolving yet remaining essentially unchanged, these items can be found anywhere and everywhere at every price range.  We often take for granite the things we have access to, so next time you shade your eyes with those stylish aviators or complete your look with a classy trench coat or sassy bomber, take a moment to remember and honor the soldiers that they were designed to keep safe.