The Aviator: Leo’s Belstaff Flying Jacket

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004)

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004)

Vitals

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, eccentric and ambitious aviation and movie mogul

Hollywood, Fall 1927 through Summer 1928

Film: The Aviator
Release Date: December 25, 2004
Director: Martin Scorsese
Costume Designer: Sandy Powell

Background

The Aviator wastes no time in establishing why the film is titled as such, providing the first look at the adult Howard Hughes as he’s beginning production on his World War I epic Hell’s Angels (1930). Hughes hires Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) to run his business enterprises—”and do a damn good job,” he adds—so he can focus his obsessive Capricorn energy on Hell’s Angels, a production combining the ambitious young mogul’s passions for aviation and movie-making. After beginning production on October 31, 1927, the film would take nearly three years to complete.

Eight months later, production has stalled on Hell’s Angels as Hughes awaits the clouds he needs so that the speed of his planes would be evident to audiences. “War Postponed – No Clouds” reads a sign that greets Dietrich as he drives onto the set. “It has been eight months, where are my goddamn clouds?!” Hughes barks at Professor Fitz (Ian Holm), a top meteorologist from UCLA that Hughes hired for this very purpose. Finally, the beleaguered Fitz is overjoyed to discover the needed clouds—ones that look like “giant breasts full of milk”, mind you—over Oakland.

The Original Memphis Five’s “Fireworks” reprises from an earlier scene as Hughes quickly mobilizes the production and flies off to Oakland to film the flying sequences, excited directing the effort from his own plane with a mounted camera. When this camera is knocked off by a close-flying plane, an undeterred Hughes draws his own handheld camera and films as he flies.

THE AVIATOR

The distinctive color particularly in the early scenes of The Aviator was Martin Scorsese’s intention to reflect the evolving color capabilities during the early decades of cinema, recreating Cinecolor and two-strip Technicolor through a post-production graphics processor developed by Joshua Pines of Technicolor Digital Intermediates.

The film won five Academy Awards, for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, and Best Supporting Actress recognizing Cate Blanchett’s performance as Katharine Hepburn.

What’d He Wear?

Howard Hughes commands the set of Hell’s Angels dressed like the pilots his film is portraying with his flap-front flight jacket, Fair Isle sweater, breeches, and tie. While not exactly a uniform like the Allied flying aces celebrated in his epic, Hughes’ outfit reflects the typical flying costumes of barnstormers, the amateur pilots who provided popular entertainment during the early days of aviation in the 1920s by performing aerial tricks at country shows.

The brown tanned leather flying blouson with its retro-inspired wide flaps was developed specifically by British clothier Belstaff for The Aviator and designated the “Howard”, for what I hope should be obvious reasons. Dressed in this jacket, Hughes looks like he’s ready to hop into the open cockpit of a classic biplane at a moment’s notice and take to the skies… because he is.

Hughes demands clouds from Professor Fitz, flashing the anachronistic but recognizable Belstaff logo on the left sleeve of his flight jacket.

Hughes demands clouds from Professor Fitz, flashing the anachronistic but recognizable Belstaff logo on the left sleeve of his flight jacket.

Eli Belovitch and his son-in-law Harry Grosberg established “Bellstaff Brand” (with an extra “L” that would remain until the 1930s) in Staffordshire, England, in 1924. It quickly became a favorite among motorcycle racers as well as aviation pioneers Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson. Despite the age of the brand, there are a few anachronisms with Hughes’ jacket being a Belstaff as the company did not begin producing jackets in colors other than black until the 1970s, nor did the recognizable Phoenix logo exist until 1969 when it was used to represent the signature Trialmaster jacket. (Read more about Belstaff history from the official site!)

As it’s been 15 years since The Aviator was released, the Belstaff “Howard” is no longer in production though some examples of this Gold Label jacket can be found on eBay and other online used retailers.

The experts at Magnoli Clothiers also created their own accurate reproduction of the Howard, borrowing from the other part of his name for the “Hughes jacket” that “embodies the extravagant nature of aviator Howard Hughes” with the same wide flaps, adjustable side tabs, and double breast pocket as the screen-worn garment.

At $419, a slightly less expensive alternative is the Mr. Styles “Barnstormer” leather jacket with its slightly less exaggerated button-up front flap and a set-in breast pocket rather than the double pocket on Hughes’ jacket.

Promotional photo of Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, sporting a tanned leather Belstaff flying jacket.

Promotional photo of Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, sporting a tanned leather Belstaff flying jacket.

With its asymmetrical flapped front, Hughes’ waist-length flying blouson could be an antecedent for the modern motorcycle jacket, resembling that more than the modern flight jacket. The large lapel flaps button left-over-right onto four sew-through buttons placed in a straight diagonal line from Hughes’ right shoulder down to the center of his stomach, just above two closely spaced buttons on the waistband. For additional closure, there is a hook on the collar that closes over the neck.

The jacket has a single outer pocket, a small patch pocket over the left breast that closes with a buttoned flap, placed on top of a larger patch pocket with a welted opening on the right side for a double pocket effect. There is a straight horizontal yoke across the upper back that lines up with the seams that extend the length of each set-in sleeve down to the cuffs, which close on one of two buttons. The jacket also tightens around the waist with buckle tab adjusters toward the back of the right and left sides.

Hughes impatiently awaits "his" clouds!

Hughes impatiently awaits “his” clouds!

Hughes wears a plain white cotton shirt with a point collar, front placket, and button cuffs. His tie is block-striped in burgundy and red with a thin salmon shadow stripe between each, all stripes in the “downhill” direction of right shoulder-down-to-left hip. Hughes wears the same tie in the following scene when he wears a rust-windowpane check three-piece suit to the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub and requests additional cameras from Louis B. Mayer.

Under the jacket, Hughes wears a classic Fair Isle knit pullover sweater in tan, dark brown, teal, and white, with the sandy tan most prominently around the V-neck opening and waist hem. According to Hardy Amies in ABC of Men’s Fashion, this knitting technique “with rather intricate and usually highly colored patterns knitted into it a bands” originated from the Moorish designs of sailors rescued from a Spanish galleon that wrecked near Fair Isle in the Shetland Islands, thus inspiring the island’s artisans to make the style their own.

THE AVIATOR

Fair Isle knitwear was popularized in the early 1920s when the Duke of Windsor famously sported one as the captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in Saint Andrews, shining a sartorial spotlight on the Fair Isle region and boosting this Scottish region’s struggling economy. It would have still been considerably en vogue when Hughes wore his while commanding the Hell’s Angels set in 1927.

Hughes wears a pair of old-fashioned flannel riding breeches with a wide, full fit through the thighs, tapering down around the knee and laced from the outside of each knee down to suppress the bottoms of these trousers to fit inside his boots.

Noah Dietrich's unorthodox job interview. In reality, the two men started working together two years earlier in November 1925 when the 19-year-old Hughes interviewed him by asking him to explain the principles of the internal combustion engine and how a battleship can effectively find its target. "I want you to make me the richest man in the world," was supposedly Hughes' directive upon hiring the 36-year-old businessman.

Noah Dietrich’s unorthodox job interview. In reality, the two men started working together two years earlier in November 1925 when the 19-year-old Hughes interviewed him by asking him to explain the principles of the internal combustion engine and how a battleship can effectively find its target. “I want you to make me the richest man in the world,” was supposedly Hughes’ directive upon hiring the 36-year-old businessman.

Hughes wears a pair of lace-up calf boots in russet brown leather, a shade closer to red than his jacket. These high-laced boots have seven derby-laced eyelets and 15 sets of speed hooks up the shaft, resembling the field service boots worn by American pilots (often with puttees) and the British military during World War I.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004)

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004)

How to Get the Look

The Aviator introduces Howard Hughes as a man driven by his innate adventurous spirit, the sort of person who not only owns a flying jacket and boots but wears them for that purpose and layers them with a sense of classically informed style with his Fair Isle knitwear, necktie, and breeches.

  • Brown tanned leather flap-front flying blouson jacket with wide front flaps (with four buttons to close and two buttons on the waistband), double patch pockets on left breast, buckle-tab waistband adjusters, and adjustable button cuffs
  • White cotton shirt with point collar, front placket, and button cuffs
  • Burgundy-and-red “downhill” block-striped tie with thin salmon border striping
  • Fair Isle sweater in amber, brown, teal, and white
  • Brown flannel riding breeches
  • Russet brown leather calf boots with 7 derby-laced eyelets and 15 sets of speed hooks

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

There’s really only one thing you gotta know: my folks, they’re gone now, so it’s my money. Now what I choose to do with that money may seem crazy to those sons-of-bitches in Houston, and I’m sure as hell it does, but it all makes good sense to me, you got that?

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