A few steps away from a sleek 1928 Lockheed 5B Vega aircraft, a glass display case at the National Air and Space Museum contains a brown leather coat that once belonged to Amelia Earhart, the legendary aviator who disappeared in the South Pacific 70 years ago this month. The jacket, lined in gray tweed, is fastened by four oversize buttons. She wore it on flights in the Vega, the plane in which she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932 (five years after Charles Lindbergh made history with his flight). "It's an elegant coat," says Air and Space curator Dorothy Cochrane, "very much in keeping with fashions of the '20s and '30s."
Almost immediately upon taking her first flight, in 1920, Earhart decided to become a pilot. Within two years, she had set a new altitude record (14,000 feet) for women. And when Amy Guest, a wealthy American aviation enthusiast, wanted to sponsor the first transatlantic flight by a woman in 1928, the 31-year-old, photogenic Earhart was the obvious choice. Though her role was merely as a passenger—two men actually piloted the plane from Newfoundland to Wales—George Putnam, a publicist who had helped select her, made sure Earhart got the lion's share of press attention. (She would marry Putnam in 1931.)
Four years later, on May 20, 1932, Earhart took off from Newfoundland, alone in the Vega, and landed 15 hours later in Northern Ireland. From then on, she shared the celebrity stratosphere with movie stars and wealthy socialites, in demand for appearances and product endorsements. She even became the aviation editor of (the original, more literary) Cosmopolitan magazine.
Earhart had always been interested in clothes. Her first flight instructor, Neta Snook, recalled her showing up for lessons in "a beautifully tailored [riding] outfit." Indeed, says Cochrane, the Smithsonian's flight jacket seems to evoke equestrian fashions from the '30s. (In time, Earhart would help to design and publicize a line of clothes marketed for "the woman who lives actively.")
The pretty, daring young flier became a friend of the new first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt; the president himself eased Earhart's preparations for a much-ballyhooed flight around the world, scheduled for 1937. Aware of America's need for heroes in the midst of a global depression, FDR ordered the Navy to prepare landing strips and a refueling station on a tiny mid-Pacific speck called Howland Island.
Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan, flying west to east, headed first to Miami, then to South America, Africa, Asia and eventually to Lae, in New Guinea. The two took off the morning of July 2, 1937, fully fueled, for the 2,556-mile over-water flight to Howland.
The pair were plagued by radio-frequency problems, preventing communication with ships in the area. After some 17 hours, an anxious and exhausted-sounding Earhart reported that she and Noonan were low on fuel about 100 miles from Howland. At 20 hours, she again radioed her position. At which point, the lady vanishes.
An intensive Navy search for signs of the Lockheed Electra and its pilot and navigator came up empty and was eventually abandoned. To this day, a dedicated group of unofficial searchers continues to comb tiny islands on both sides of the Equator.
When a person who is both famous and celebrated disappears without a trace, as Amelia Earhart did, their most everyday possessions can take on an immense power. So it is that something as ordinary as Earhart's flying coat, donated in 1961 by the late Lewis Miller of Tarpon Springs, Florida, takes on a commanding poignancy. The jacket—mounted on a dressmaker's form—retains the shape of the person who wore it; it may be as close to Amelia Earhart as we are likely to get.
Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions.