Gary Cooper as Cadet White, U.S. Army Aviation Section, Signal Corps aviator
Camp Kelly (San Antonio, Texas), Spring 1917
Release Date: August 12, 1927
Director: William A. Wellman
Costume Design: Travis Banton & Edith Head (uncredited)
Ninety years ago today, Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture—more accurately, the award read “Academy Award for Outstanding Picture.” Though silent movies were still the norm at the time of Wings’ release in August 1927, The Jazz Singer introduced recorded sound to film upon its release two months later, and Wings remains the only true silent film (unless you include The Artist) to take home the Best Picture prize.
While elements of that first award ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on May 16, 1929, are still traditions today—namely celebrities arriving in luxury cars to cheering fans—the ceremony itself, hosted by Douglas Fairbanks, lasted no longer than 15 minutes and was not broadcast on radio or television, nor was there any suspense for award nominees during the event as the winners in each of the twelve categories had been made public three months earlier.
Not only was the groundbreaking World War I aviation epic the first Oscar winner, it also launched the career of Hollywood legend Gary Cooper.
The 25-year-old Cooper was one of 35 actors who William A. Wellman looked at for the brief but important role of Cadet White, the confident aviator assigned to share a tent with the film’s two leads until he dies in an aviation crash (“a flock of figure eights before chow”) the same day. Though only on screen for two silent minutes a half hour into the movie, the actor’s easygoing yet electrifying charisma radiated off the screen and assured him a lifetime of leading roles for more than three decades to follow.
What’d He Wear?
Wings was the second film that legendary costume designer Edith Head worked on, following The Golden Bed (1925), though it was most assuredly Travis Banton who took the lead on the film as he was the de facto costume designer for star Clara Bow… despite Bow irritating him by making her own alterations to her costumes, such as cutting off the sleeves and—according to Bow’s biographer David Stenn—campaigning for a tight belt to be added to her military uniform to flatter her figure.
As opposed to Bow, with whom he had began a tumultuous affair despite her recent engagement to Victor Fleming, Gary Cooper was more assuredly an easier subject for the costume designers to work with as he was outfitted in the dapper leather greatcoat and uniform of an American aviator.
While he’s referred to as “Cadet” White, Cooper’s character isn’t commissioned with the full rank of Flying Cadet as that was not formally created until an act of Congress on July 9, 1918. He is, however, a student in the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Aviation Cadet Training Program and thus attired in uniform pieces of the U.S. Army, albeit with additional garments specifically designated for the corps’ newly formed Aviation Section.
Per the U.S. Army uniform regulations issued in 1917 (Special Regulations No. 41):
Special articles of clothing for aviation purposes are provided and authorized as indicated hereafter. They are in addition to the usual articles of clothing for garrison and field service. All officers and enlisted men on duty in the Aviation Section will obtain them on memorandum receipt from the Quartermaster. They will be hold in addition to all the other clothing as required by these regulations.
Cadet White wears a long brown leather flying coat that extends to just above his knees, a dashing piece of outerwear that marked the early direction of aviation style before waist-length flight jackets became the standard with pieces like the leather A-2 and the nylon MA-1 later in the 20th century. The coat has broad lapels and a tightly spaced 6×3-button double-breasted front with an additional button under each side of the collar to close the coat at the neck.
In addition to the two parallel columns of three buttons down the front, White’s coat has a leather self-belt that closes through a double-ring metal buckle. The coat also has slanted set-in hand pockets at the waist level and half-tabs on each cuff to adjust the tightness around White’s wrists.
In the early days of U.S. military aviation, coats like these were typically not standard issue, especially to cadets. According to paragraph 75(b) of the 1917 regulations:
Leather aviator coats (or, in case of water squadron, antisinking coats).—Will be worn while engaged in flying, except in the tropics, where the leather coat may be dispensed with.
Many military pilots obtained leather flying coats through private purchases, like this similar tanned leather coat once owned and worn by Lieutenant John M. Schaupp, Jr., according to the U.S. Militaria Forum. Note the differences between this coat and Cooper’s coat, particularly the additional row of buttons on the front, the bellows pockets on the hips, and the additional vertical-opening pocket over the left breast.
Rather than the standing-collar tunic worn by both enlisted men and officers during World War I, the trio of cadets all wear the standard M1916 pullover shirt in olive drab woolen flannel with point collar and single-button cuffs. The long front placket extends about halfway down the shirt with three widely spaced buttons. The rectangular button-down flaps on the two set-in chest pockets were added for the M1916 pattern shirt, which the U.S. Army would continue to wear through 1937. Non-regulation M1916 shirts in a lighter weight cotton poplin with four-button plackets were also available for private purchase.
Affixed to each leaf of White’s collar are the bronze Type I collar discs with a “U.S.” disc on the right collar leaf and the regimental crossed flags signifying his service in the Signal Corps on the left.
Per paragraph 76(c), “when off duty, in permanent and maneuver camp and out of camp, officers and enlisted men will wear a plain black cravat tied as a four-in-hand. No other style or color of cravat will be so worn.” Cadet White wears a black tie that, unlike the straight ties of Jack and David, flares out to a wide blade on the bottom. All three cadets’ ties are short enough to reveal that the pullover shirt’s placket does not extend to the trouser waist line.
White’s flat front trousers are likely the same olive drab wool as his shirt, with thin belt loops, frogmouth-style slanted front pockets, and jetted back pockets. The bottoms of his trousers are tucked into the leggings worn over the top of his boots. He wears a khaki web belt that closes through a brass box-style buckle.
When the U.S. Army adopted its new uniform regulations in 1902, it also changed the color of its standard issue field boot leather from black to a russet brown. Cadet White wears these cap-toe field boots, derby-laced through eight eyelets and a set of speed hooks with a pair of light khaki canvas M1910 leggings covering the uppers and the bottoms of his trousers.
They can be differentiated as the M1910 leggings by their triple sets of eyelets: one pair at the top, one pair at the bottom, and one pair in the center. The later M1917 pattern leggings would be laced with eight eyelets coordinating with seven speed hooks opposite.
Both white and black socks were authorized for U.S. Army wear during World War I, though—other than the white ribbed crew socks on his cot—Cadet White’s socks are never seen as he keeps his boots and leggings on while taking his nap.
The 1917 uniform regulations illustrate the consistent overlap between gear specifically worn by aviators and motorcycle messengers, including the brown leather flying helmet and goggles:
Aviators and motorcycle messengers will wear special helmets prescribed. In summer they shall be of pliable russet leather, lined with felt; in cold weather, aviators will wear a fur-lined soft russet-leather helmet.
— Paragraph 89, 1917 uniform regulations
These early flying helmets were often constructed of leather for its warmth, waterproof, and windproof qualities as well as its relative flexibility in fitting a wearer’s head without taking up too much space. A wide flap on each side can be fastened with a strap under the chin.
Improved type of triplex goggles will be worn by all aviators and motorcycle messengers in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps while engaged in their respective duties… Clear or amber-colored glass, according to the desire of the person using them.
— Paragraph 86, 1917 uniform regulations
Cadet White appears to be wearing the classic NAK flying goggles that were standard issue for U.S. Army aviators during World War I. The goggles themselves are laminated glass that appear to be amber-tinted, per the regulations above. The frame is a lightweight aluminum that folds in the center, backed by a chenille fur trim and held in place on a plain elastic strap worn over the helmet.
You can read more about American military uniforms during World War I here. You can also see examples of various countries’ World War I aviator uniforms at The Vintage Aviator, including a photo of a U.S. pilot’s dark brown leather flying jacket, which looks slightly closer to Cooper’s coat than Lieutenant Schaupp’s example.
Go Big or Go Home
Cadet White’s choice of snack is still available today! In what has to be one of the earliest examples of prominent product placement on the big screen, White offers Jack a bite of his Hershey’s Milk Chocolate with Almonds bar, then drops the candy on his cot.
After White’s death, Jack and David are ordered to pack up the aviator’s belongings. They notice that the Hershey bar is placed atop both of his socks, so Jack gingerly picks up the socks and allows the Hershey’s to tumble back onto the bedding.
How to Get the Look
As the dashing but ill-fated aviator Cadet White, Gary Cooper supplements his standard U.S. Army uniform with the long leather coat, helmet, and goggles befitting his role.
- Brown leather flying coat with wide lapels, 6×3-button double-breasted front, leather self-belt with double-ring buckle, slanted hand pockets, and single-button pointed-tab cuffs
- Olive drab wool pullover M1916 shirt with point collar, half-length 3-button front placket, two flapped set-in chest pockets, and single-button cuffs
- “U.S.” bronze Type I right-collar disc
- Crossed flags Signal Corps insignia bronze Type I left-collar disc
- Black tie
- Olive drab wool flat front trousers with belt loops, slanted front pockets, and jetted back pockets
- Khaki web belt with brass box-style buckle
- Russet brown leather cap-toe field boots with eight derby-laced eyelets and speed hooks
- Off-white ribbed crew socks
- Light khaki M1910 canvas leggings
- Brown russet leather flying helmet with ear flaps
- NAK Triplex-type flying goggles with lightweight folding teardrop-shaped aluminum frame, chenille fur trim, and amber-tinted laminated glass lenses
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. The American military cooperated heavily in the production of Wings, providing plenty of resources from actual soldiers to equipment including nearly the entire existing fleet of U.S. Army pursuit planes.
Luck or no luck, when your time comes, you’re going to get it!
Gary Cooper followed up his portrayal of a Great War aviator in Wings by playing a Captain in the Royal Flying Corps the following year in Lilac Time (1928).