From runway to catwalk: how aviation milestones inspired fashion design

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What do aviation and fashion have in common? The industries both contribute a large percentage to the global carbon dioxide emissions with aviation at 2% and fashion at 10%. 

Aside from that fact, the month of September also plays an enormous role in both industries. 

September is the biggest month of the year for the fashion industry, with fashion weeks in New York, London, Paris, and Milan all taking place. This year, the shows are happening from September 8 – October 3, 2023. 

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Fashion retailers watch the shows like hawks, taking down every trend detail that will steer the direction of the coming year. Trends such as cuts, garments, and patterns are then sent to brand buyers to help retailers prepare for production and marketing. 

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All major fashion magazines prepare for this crucial month. “The September Issue” is a term well-known in the editorial world of fashion, which, according to The Walk, is an issue that helps decipher key insights into consumer habits, influences, and relevant topics. 

Meanwhile, the month of September marks hundreds of aviation milestones and commemorative dates. These include:

  • September 1, 1923 – The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was formed 
  • September 1, 1953 – The first aerial refueling of a jet aircraft by a jet tanker was made with a Boeing B-47 “Stratojet” by a Boeing KB-47B “Stratojet” tanker
  • September 3, 1908 – Orville Wright makes his first flight at Fort Meyer, Virginia
  • September 4, 1922 – The first transcontinental air crossing was made within a single day
  • September 9, 1911 – The first mail carried by air in the United Kingdom was delivered
  • September 15, 1991 – TheMcDonald Douglas C-17 “Globemaster III” made its first flight.
  • September 30, 1982 – The first round the world flight in a helicopter is completed with the Bell “Long Ranger” II
Image: Andrew Harker /

There are at least two to three anniversaries or milestones in the aviation sector each day throughout September. The complete list can be viewed here.

For decades, fashion and aviation have enjoyed a symbiotic role in influencing each other. Fashion designers and airlines have also worked alongside each other to create signature uniforms, and even amenity kit partnerships. 

From runway to catwalk

In recent years, fashion brands have also used aviation as inspiration when showcasing their latest collections. 

In 2015, Karl Lagerfeld, then-head designer and creative director for Chanel, created an “airport terminal” in Paris’ Grand Palais, naming it the “Chanel Airlines Terminal”.

Models strutted down a runway designed to look like an airport terminal while spectators sat in uncomfortable looking chairs that perfectly resembled those found at the airport gates. 

In May 2019, Louis Vuitton transformed the abandoned TWA Flight Center at New York’s John F Kennedy Airport (JFK) into a runway-ready stage to hold the brand’s 2020 resort collection.

In February 2020, one of JFK airport’s runways was made catwalk-ready when designer Jessica Minh Anh’s Winter Fashion Show was shown in collaboration with DHL. The runway setup included a DHL Boeing 767-400 aircraft, which was used to start the show. 

Aviation influences in everyday fashion

Aviator sunglasses

If there’s one fashion accessory originating from the aviation industry that’s been popular throughout  the decades, it’s the classic aviator sunglasses.

These sunglasses were designed in the 1930’s during the First World War, when aircraft were used for attack and reconnaissance missions. American pilots suffered from strained eyes due to the brightness and glare from the sun, and the US Army sought the help of optics manufacturer Bausch & Lomb for a solution.

The prototype of the aviator sunglasses was created in 1936 and had plastic frames and green lenses that could cut out the glare without obscuring vision.

In 1939, the sunglasses were redesigned with a metal frame and it was promoted by Bausch & Lomb as the “Ray-Ban Aviator”. By then, Ray-Ban had been founded as a civilian division of Bausch & Lomb.

During its military use, the sunglasses replaced the outmoded flight goggles used previously, because they were much lighter and thinner. The aviators were also designed to be comfortable when worn with a hat or a helmet. 

Image: Wikipedia

The aviators were first popularized in 1944 during the Second World War when US General Douglas MacArthur landed on a beach in Leyte in the Philippines and was photographed by the press. The image of MacArthur wearing aviators became so legendary that Bausch & Lomb dedicated a line of sunglasses to him in 1987.

In popular culture, the aviators were brought to the big screen in 1986 with the iconic Tom Cruise film Top Gun. Cruise played the role of a fighter pilot, and he donned the aviators in many of the scenes. Sales of Ray Ban aviators reportedly rose by nearly 40% in the seven months after the film’s release. 

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In 2022, a Top Gun sequel was released and, according to GQ, the film reignited public interest in the aviator sunglasses.

Bomber jackets

These jackets, which a lot of people may have in their closets, were originally known as ‘flight jackets’. They were created by the US Army Aviation Clothing Board in 1917 to keep First World War pilots warm in the plane cockpits, which were uninsulated and cold. 

According to bespoke suit tailor Michael Andrews, the bomber jacket design was tailored alongside advancements in aviation technology. 

For instance, in 1927, plane cockpits were made narrower and more closed in, so the US Army developed the A-1 flight jacket design. 

It featured a knit waistband and cuffs, which not only insulated the jacket from cold air, but gave it a particularly flattering fit which sat high on the waist.

The A-1 design laid the blueprint for the modern bomber jacket that we know today.

In modern fashion, brands have designed their own bomber jackets. Though stylish and more sleek, its delicate materials, often made of silk, may not withstand the cockpit and fighting environments it was originally designed for. 

This bomber jacket designed by Louis Vuitton and Supreme costs USD 17,500.

The pilot watch

Among all aviation-inspired fashion accessories, it is the pilot watch that is most associated with luxury. 

Pilot watches date back to 1904, when Louis Cartier designed a watch as a present for his pilot friend, Alberto Santos-Dumont. 

Based on the history of monochrome watches, Santos-Dumont regaled Cartier about his flying adventures, but at the same time bemoaned that it was difficult to fumble and check his pocket watch for the time because he had to keep his hands on the controls of the flying machine.

Based on this need, Cartier designed a pilot wrist watch. 

Pilot watches are characterized by their distinct, easy-to-read dials, high contrast hands and markers and various features that assist pilots in navigation and timing during flight.

One of the most valuable features of a high-quality pilot watch is a chronograph function, which can calculate airspeed, calibrate airplane functions, and even compensate for wind direction

Image: Olena Yakobchuk /

As aviation technologies advanced, there was less need for pilots to wear pilot watches. A report by The Points Guy stated that data such as time-elapsed, distance traveled and fuel burn calculations are essential to pilots and before computers did the job the pilot watch was the tool to use.

Today’s modern pilot watches still retain these capabilities and other legacy features, such as having a big crown which was needed so that pilots could still adjust the time while wearing gloves.

According to watch guide Condor Straps, pilot watches are often crafted with durable materials designed to withstand the rigors of flying an aircraft, and may also be water-resistant.

There are many brands that carry pilot watch models, but the most popular ones include the IWC Big Pilot, Breitling Navitimer.

Richard Mille created the world’s most expensive modern pilot watch, the Tourbillon Aviation E6-B Flyback Chronograph (RM 039) at $600,000

Do you own any fashion items inspired by aviation? What’s your favorite piece?

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