Maj. John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) and crew prepare for their next mission.
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Adding Authenticity to Masters of the Air

Costume designer Colleen Atwood on creating the ultimate leather bomber jackets and much more for this ambitious World War II drama.

Jeff Bond

Unit photography by Robert Viglasky, SMPSP. All images courtesy of Apple

Four-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood has designed costumes for fantasies (Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Snow White and the Huntsman), musicals (Into the Woods, Chicago) and period films (Memoirs of a Geisha, Little Women), but until the Apple+ streaming series Masters of the Air she hadn’t yet tackled a World War II project. “I've always wanted to do it,” she says. “It's kind of like one of those dream things like a Western — you always kind of want to do one just because. This one was moving to me because my grandfather was a pilot and I had a connection to our pilots in a way.”

For Masters of the Air, Atwood had to recreate the distinctive leather flight jackets and uniforms of the U.S Army Air Forces 100th Bomb Group, as well as period-correct British and German uniforms, various civilian wardrobe designs, and even the garb of Jewish concentration-camp victims.

While she didn’t have sewing patterns from the era to work from, the costume designer did have samples of original uniforms as references, some attained from rental houses and others from private collectors. “We took patterns off of those and then adapted them to modern body shapes,” she says, “because we had actors who tended to be a little bit bigger than people of the period who were wearing these clothes in the ’40s.”

Just as the B-17 bomber is the signature aircraft of the series, the American aviators’ shearling fleece leather jackets are the show’s sartorial hallmark. Atwood worked with British costume designer Gary Eastman, a specialist in leather, to recreate the jackets. “I went to him with a flight jacket that I liked that had a slight variation in color from what his normal reproduction was, because it was a slightly earlier jacket than what he manufacturers in his line,” Atwood says. “I showed Gary that and asked, ‘Can you make me 200 of these, with this style, color, and in a couple of different kinds of leathers?’ Because, in fact, when the country geared up for war, different factories made different uniforms in different areas, so they were not all identical. All the leather was a little different, sometimes the stitching — if you really go deep, there's a lot of little variations to it.”

Actor Austin Butler as Major Gale “Buck” Cleven.

Finding and recreating the jackets’ sheepskin lining, visible on the garments’ collars, lapels, waists and sleeves, became one of the costume designer’s biggest challenges. “I found one original, which Gary had, of a white one, which is incredibly rare,” she explains. “He let me hold it for a minute and take specs off it and helped me source materials for it, and then we manufactured that in-house. And then the other ones he made with the shearling inside. I adapted it for film a little bit because sheepskin today is thicker than it used to be. So I kind of scaled down the collars and sheared out the inside.”

Maj. John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) and Cleven on the B-17 flight deck.

Designed to protect pilots and flight crew from the bitter cold when flying missions at 20,000 feet, the genuine jackets took a lot of punishment in the cramped quarters of the B-17 flight deck, and part of Atwood’s job was to make her replicas look appropriately use-weathered. “It was really a beastly job to beat those things up,” she notes. “Because they're tough; they're not made to be beat up. But they photograph better if they have some texture to them and they're not just one flat color of leather, so we spent a lot of time with an ‘aging’ team, prepping all that stuff, so by the time the actors got there, it looked like somebody had worn it.” Atwood also discovered that the classic fleece jackets eventually fell prey to safety concerns during the conflict. “They went to a nylon jacket by the end of the war, because the shearling was so heavy, that when guys were going down in water, it had a heavy sink-ability.”

The toughness of the leather material ensured that some genuine 1940s flight equipment, in particular the leather helmets and oxygen masks used by the fliers, actually survived long enough to be used by the production. “I had a couple guys working for me that were really into collecting the old stuff,” Atwood says. “Ironically, Gary Eastman, besides having the leather businesses, is also a collector, so he had masks. So, we didn't have to make the masks; we used real ones. We had to redo some of the hardware on them because it was worn out, but the masks we used on screen were authentic.”

As the series progresses, downed American fliers are captured behind enemy lines, giving Atwood the sobering task of reproducing German uniforms and the clothing of concentration camp victims. “The Nazi uniforms at the beginning of the war were impeccable,” she describes. “They were made by a company called Hugo Boss — it's still around. They were also manufactured in Poland, which has a long history of uniform manufacturing. But these uniforms gave the German soldiers a sense of pride because they had lived through very hard times coming out of a huge depression [of the 1930s], and their uniform was the nicest thing they'd ever seen in their lives. They tend to be more showy than the American uniforms, for the officers especially; they were beautifully made, beautifully finished, they had a lot more trim, where the American uniforms were quite simple and elegant.”

Genuine German uniforms were also harder to come by than their American counterparts. “They’re über collectible,” Atwood explains. “I had one black flight jacket for a pilot that was an original. We found it online, but aren't a lot of them out there. It's very restricted, how they're used in film, and not just anybody can go rent a Nazi uniform these days. Any insignia these uniforms would have is also very collectible, so we used reproductions.”

A sequence featuring Jewish prisoners crowded into a train bound for a concentration camp was shot at the height of Covid restrictions and proved unnerving for the cast and crew. “We really felt — even though you know it's fake… We still got goose pimples on our arms because you know people really did this to other people,” Atwood recalls. “It was a very kind of oddly upsetting day; I have to say it was very disturbing.”

You’ll find our complete story on shooting Masters of the Air in our April issue and our web-exclusive article with production designer Chris Seagers here.

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