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