The Film that Made the Leather Bomber Jacket Cool Again

Robert Redford in “The Great Waldo Pepper”, 1975 | Universal Pictures

The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) is a George Roy Hill film about a biplane pilot who had missed out on combat in World War I and takes up barnstorming in the 1920s and then becomes a Hollywood stunt pilot in quest of the glory he had missed. He eventually re-enacts a famous dogfight with an actual German ace and along the storyline not few are the tribulances he faces.

Robert Redford plays the lead role and Edith Head was the costume designer. On working with George Roy Hill, Head said “he’s a perfectionist. I had to show him all the fabrics. This doesn’t happen very often, but he has a tremendous interest in everything, and I like to work with someone like that.” The director had been a marine pilot in World War II and the Korean War before going into the movie industry, and he reportedly often flew the plane featured in the film while directing the action.

As for Redford, Edith Head said: “I go to Redford and I show him three sketches, telling him ‘this one will make you seem more sensitive, this one is more aggressive, and this one is more romantic.’ I let him decide which is best for him. Usually he will pick the one that is most masculine.”

Redford is indeed natural, simple, boyish, brave in the film and the clothes play the part. Redford has usually played characters who emulate the kind of style that is more about dressing down (like that American look in the true preppy spirit) and less about glamorous Hollywood style – something I am sure the actor agrees with in real life. “There was nothing at the end of the rainbow for me here. Hollywood was not a place I dreamed of getting to. I never could take seriously the obsession people have about being a celebrity or getting to Hollywood — I was born next door.”

He wears a brown leather bomber jacket in The Great Waldo Pepper and the film was one of the movies credited with the revitalising the interest in the leather bomber jackets, according to Jay Jorgensen, the author of the book Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer. Jorgensen doesn’t get into further detail, and I must admit that my first thought was that the bomber jacket has always been around, and that its appeal has never gone away.

But. Let’s think a little harder. It was the 1970s. A time that wasn’t fashion’s best, not even for men. A time when not even James Bond’s style stayed in the realm of classic as played by Roger Moore – what made his James Bond enduring was the fact that Moore put his own spin on it (debonair, dapper, devil-may-care). The plot of The Great Waldo Pepper was however set in the 1920s and we can trace in Robert Redford’s character the post-war pursuit of the American Dream. No matter what, he looks put-together. He is an aviator, of course, and the high-flyer costume is part of his life. It endows him the self-assurance and conviction he needs in his pursuits of glory, whatever form that might take. I can not think of any time when confidence and a sense of dress have not gone hand in hand. But maybe the 1970s needed a little reassurance on what exactly a sense of dress was (and still is).

Robert Redford in “The Great Waldo Pepper” (1975) | Universal Pictures


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