The History of Leather Part 16 – The Irvin

Posted on 25/07/14

The true flying jacket archetype (1926)

Now we move to specific iconic jackets of history that are either still produced and replicated today, or that have inspired modern designs.

When you picture a pilot from the days of yore, chances are that you picture one of four things – a leather flight goggle-cap combo, a scarf flapping in the wind, an endearing and brightly-coloured biplane, or a sheepskin flying jacket. As we have already heard, pilots in the early 20th century were subjected to extreme temperatures at high altitude, and very quickly learned that insulation was key. Not wanting to rest on his laurels after inventing the now-standard parachute rip chord system, Leslie Irvin wanted to design and distribute the go-to flight jacket of the time.

Setting up shop in Letchworth, UK in 1926, the Irvin Flying Jacket was born and standardised only a year later. Combining a light leather exterior with a heavyweight sheepskin lining, the Irvin allowed more freedom of movement than its knee-length forbears, all without sacrificing the all-important insulation.

The jackets were, if anything, extravagant in their liberal use of the sheepskin material, so much so that it caused problems when the bombastic Summer sequel to World War I came around. Changes had to be made. Not only did Irvin’s company have to hire subcontractors to deal with increasing demand, but seamstresses were forced to get creative – combining offcuts into larger panels, and dividing the overall pattern into smaller individual panels. This means there’s a off-puttingly anal second-hand market for Irvin jackets, with equally off-puttingly anal Partridge-esque collectors – so consider pursuing one of the multitude of modern interpretations of Irvin’s original design instead.

Irvin’s jacket is undoubtedly one of, if not the most iconic flight jacket that there has ever been – sitting comfortably in the mind’s eye of the public consciousness. Cartoon characters new and old have sported Irvin-like jackets at some point in their illustrious careers, from the likes of Wolverine and Bugs Bunny, to lesser-known characters like Klunk from “Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines” (but you, like me, probably knew it as “Stop the Pigeon” because come on with that theme tune, that had to be its name), or if you want to get really obscure, there is also Baloo von Bruinwald XIII in Disney’s “TaleSpin”. Honestly that’s a real thing that existed. Look it up. Go on, I’ll wait.

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