Monday, 18 January 2016

Frankenstein Jackets and Ghost MA-1s

William Gibson in his custom MA-1
When we think about vintage fashion, for the most part we have a clear image in mind. Girls in forties and fifties wear, lots of big skirts, spike heels, the starlet look. For the gents, snappy suits, slicked back hair: the demob style.

But there's more to vintage than that. Strangely, it takes a writer best known for his science fiction to make that point.

William Gibson, the man who brought the term "cyberspace" into common usage, is a huge aficionado of military specification (milspec) garments and workwear. This love and knowledge led to the launch, in 2004, of a capsule range of the items he loves in conjunction with Japanese label Buzz Rickson. The clothes, which include tweaked reproductions of the classic MA-1 flight jacket, came about through an unusual circumstance. Gibson, in conversation with David Shuck of, lays out the way in which the jacket came to be...

"In 2001, I was writing a novel called Pattern Recognition. The protagonist was an American woman famous for the minimalism of her style. An internet buddy of mine in Seoul happened to visit Tokyo then, and told me he’d been able to buy a reproduction military jacket there, by a company called Buzz Rickson. He was excited about it, said their stuff was exquisitely made, hard to get. He had a pal at work who collected nothing but vintage US military zippers.

These guys had an otaku thing going on like nobody’s business. It was an N-1 deck jacket. I thought that the brand sounded right for my heroine, and I liked the idea of a passionate Japanese reproduction of an old US military garment, though at the time it was just an idea, because I’d never seen anything quite like that, though I’d been to Tokyo a few times. So I invented a jacket for her, but I made it a black MA-1, because I like MA-1s on women, and because she had a very limited color-range.

Eventually I received a baffled letter from Buzz Rickson, asking why I’d put their name on something they’d never made. I explained it as best I could, apologetically, and they told they really wanted to make that jacket. They’d been getting letters from people, asking where they could buy one. So the black MA-1 was our first jacket. I had them make it a few inches longer than the original pattern, though, because most MA-1s are a little too short for me."

Gibson's love for the workwear look is informed by his former career as a vintage picker, prowling the thrift shops of his native Toronto. The gear has an appeal beyond the look: rigorously designed for functionality and wear. It's built to last. The proof: it does, and we can still buy it. Gibson says:

" 1947 a lot of American workingmen wore shirts that were better made than most people’s shirts are today. Union-made, in the United States. Better fabric, better stitching. There were work shirts that retailed for fifty cents that were closer to today’s Prada than to today’s J.Crew. Fifty cents was an actual amount of money, though. We live in an age of seriously crap mass clothing. They’ve made a science of it."

The appeal of vintage clothing is clear (and, to bring it into the remit of this blog, seriously sustainable, of course) but the scene has led to some interesting Frankenstein garments too. Bivouac tents from WW2 in particular have formed the foundation of trucker jackets and other bits of seriously hard-wearing outerwear. This upcycling of vintage materiel shows how the thrift and invention of the lean war years still has a place in the more rarified fashion world of the 21st century.

The whole article is well worth a look for insights into the interconnections between utility clothing, workwear and high fashion. And, if you're interested in the scene, Gibson has some solid tips for where to start looking. Like I said at the head of this piece–the guy knows his milspec.


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