A Pattern in Disguise

10 things you never knew you needed to know about camouflage

For a pattern, camouflage carries a loaded history. It was invented to trick enemy eyes and its ability to break up a silhouette, be it human or artillery, made it the difference between life and death. In its early days, camouflage was an emblem of military might.

But like a chameleon, camo took on other identities. Remove it from war and camo is at attention, fit for punks and protesters. Remove the politics and camo is on runways, seen on the designs of Gaultier and Galliano.

For something that’s not meant to be seen, camo is everywhere.

1 // Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Camouflage takes its name from the French word camouflet, the act of maliciously blowing smoke into someone’s face to distort them.

2 // Sticks And Stones
The first recorded professionals in disguise were hunters. Their outfits were fashioned out of nature’s material: foliage, twigs, and a musky scent to go. Scottish gamekeepers took it up a notch and added burlap and netting to create the Ghillie Suit, turning men into walking shrubs.

3 // For the Birds (And the Rodents, and the…)
Early camouflage enthusiast Abbott Thayer was an American artist and natural historian. While analyzing the animals’ ability to disguise themselves with protective colouration, he came up with this crazy theory that the military should adopt this technique. Governments scoffed at his idea.

4 // Heavy Machinery
The disruptive patterns were eventually put to good use on artillery, tanks, aircrafts and ships during the First World War.

5 // Art Stars
One day, Pablo Picasso strolled the streets of Paris, and he spotted a camouflaged cannon. Upon recognizing the parallels with his Cubist art, he exclaimed, “It is we who created that!” (But, you know, in French.)

6 // Give ‘Em the Old Razzle Dazzle
Camo met costume in 1919 at the famous Dazzle Balls of London’s Chelsea Arts Club. The outlandish costumes featured abstract geometric shapes, bold stripes, and disruptive colours that broke up the silhouette. Created by British marine artist Norman Wilkinson, dazzle’s actual purpose was to cover huge battleships during WWI.

7 // Can You See Me Now?
When camouflage appeared on combat gear in the Second World War, soldiers complained that it exposed them. When the Vietnam War broke out, camo was clearly working for the enemy, and American soldiers came around.

8 // Know Your Stripes

Tiger Stripes > Overlapping horizontals in olive greens and browns. Worn by Americans during the Vietnam War. It evolved from the lizard stripes worn by the French.

U.S. Woodland > Large splotches of brown, green, and black on a khaki background. This is the camouflage we typically think of. Released in 1967, and still used by the U.S. military today.

Desert Storm > Features black and white pebble-like clusters on a beige and brown backdrop. Developed in 1962 and used during the Gulf and Iraq wars. Also called the “chocolate chip.”

Frog Skin > A reversible pattern displaying spots of green colours on one side and tan on the other. Created by Norvell Gillespie, inspired by amphibians.

Digital Camouflage > Pixilated patches in shades of green and tan. Also called the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP). Marine Patterns (MARPAT) is a variation that incorporates blacks. Adopted by the Canadian military in the late ’90s.

Splittermuster > Composed of green and brown angular shapes on a tan background, with rain-like green lines on top. First issued to the German army in 1931.

9 // For the People
On the political battlefields, camo was a motif of ironic sorts among anti-war protesters in the ’60s, punks in the ’70s, and hip hop artists in the ’80s. Public Enemy made their public image a black and white version of the U.S. Woodland.

10 // Walk, Walk, Fashion Baby
By the 1990s, camo found itself all over fashion week. Gaultier created camo chiffon gowns while Galliano put the print on silk evening dresses. No label utilized the print more than the London brand Maharishi. Its designer Hardy Blechman once said: “[Camouflage] was no longer about concealment, but became a symbol. It has become for many, unconsciously, a first step towards spiritual renewal.”

further reading // Camouflage by Tim Newark

illustration // Andrea Manica

Go Go Gaultier Fashion Show!


Like any good journalist, I left the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition with few notes on the show, but a page filled with DIY jewellery and clothing ideas.

I’m not a particularly crafty person. My sewing machine has sat broken in my parents’ basement for about two years now, next to a dress I never got around to mending. Yet, standing in the same room as haute couture creations for the first time in my life, I decided I might have it in me to make some Gaultier-inspired creations of my own.

(As it turns out, I don’t. I’d hoped to include a photo of my metal sponge-turned-necklace here, but it’s too embarrassing and the sponge is now sulking under a pile of dirty dishes in my sink.)

I think what inspired my temporary delusion was that many of Gaultier’s materials, particularly in the punk- and urban-inspired portions of the show, were surprisingly accessible. And that’s what makes them so impressive — not just anyone can turn a garbage bag into a dress and scouring pads into wearable jewellery. Huh.

The exhibition features more than 140 outfits from Gaultier’s couture collections and prêt-à-porter lines. Rather than calling it a retrospective, Gaultier considers the show a creation in its own right. A variety of multimedia and photographs accompany the clothing.

Whether you’re a fan of the designer or not, it really is incredible to stand with your nose inches away from pieces that took hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hours to create by hand. Even to someone with my very limited knowledge of haute couture, the beauty and craftsmanship of the pieces is breathtaking.
(Also fun: the mannequins have moving faces and occasionally speak.)

The show does a good job of tracing the designer’s creative development alongside significant shifts in societal norms. I particularly liked the section that examines blurring gender roles and features skirts and corsets for men.

If you want to catch The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, it’s at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until October 2. After that, it will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art and then to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, before going to Madrid in 2012.

text by Jaclyn Irvine
photography by Lindsey Fast