The History of Camouflage in Warfare and Fashion

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Now you see me. Now you don’t. With military origins, camouflage soon became part of pop culture. Let’s take a look at this elusive pattern.

Long before there was a pattern called camouflage, the world had ample creatures small and large cleverly escaping identification by blending into their background. Innumerable animals possessed coats and skins that mimicked the colors and patterns of their environments.

Moths can match tree bark, frogs blend into moss, bugs have acted as dead ringers for leaves, snakes mimic the tones of sand. Many animals perform this camouflage trick extremely well.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

It’s not certain when ancient humans setting out on a hunt first thought to drape themselves in clothing the color of their hillsides and flora. However, we do know that Scotland dyed hunting plaids with forest lichen, offering wearers natural camouflage as they roamed their hunting grounds.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

In the military, before camouflage was formalized, astute soldiers had the smart idea to spread mud on their uniforms to give them invisibility. Troops elsewhere painted splotches and lines on their uniforms (a down-home version of camouflage).

These events show that camouflage was tiptoeing its way into history in multiple ways. A tremendous number of multihued camouflages now exist, imitating natural woodlands, jungles, deserts, rain forests, oceans, grasslands, and more.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

As we know from history class, British soldiers once wore highly visible scarlet coats. (The red coats are coming!) This was perhaps not wise, but they weren’t the only ones.

Early America soldiers wore blue uniforms and French soldiers wore bright red pants. Over time, hiding one’s military presence became the wilier choice. Currently, soldiers only wear bright uniforms during ceremonies and parades.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

19th century Europe cleverly (and finally) made military uniforms in solid drab colors to avoid easy detection. By the 20th century, in 1915 France, the pattern we call camouflage was born. At this time, during WWI, military equipment—tanks and rifles—had grown noticeably larger. This meant they could be detected more readily—not only because they were bulky, but because aerial photography became widely used around this same time.

Camouflage could keep the French army’s weaponry secreted. They hired set painters (camoufleurs) to create the first designs. This is where the name camouflage originates. A unit of only thirty painters created the first camouflage patterns. These artists applied the pattern to nets and cloths that became tarps and uniforms. By the end of the war, three thousand artists were part of the camoufleur team.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

Camouflage was so clearly useful that within a year, numerous European and American armies formed their own teams of painters.

Brushstroke Camouflage

The scenic artists used simple brush strokes on the cloth, giving their designs a hand-painted look. This camouflage became known as Brushstroke.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

In WWII, industrial printing on fabric became possible. Camouflage designs expanded quickly—and kept expanding. Different patterns appeared across the globe. In addition to Brushstroke, we can now find an extensive range of camouflage patterns, each stylistically and tactically specific. Here are a few . . .

Puzzle Camouflage

Puzzle camouflage is named for its curved design that brings to mind jigsaw shapes.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

Rain Camouflage

During WWII, the Germans invented rain camouflage to mimic high grasses.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

Splitter Camouflage

Splitter camouflage has an extremely stylized look, invented by the Swiss during WWII.

Splitter Camo
Image via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

Tigerstripe Camouflage

Tigerstripe is a jungle camouflage associated strongly with combat uniforms from the Vietnam War, but it actually originated from an earlier French camouflage called Lizard.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

Woodland Camouflage

Woodland camouflage became ubiquitous quickly.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

Chocolate Chip Camouflage

Chocolate Chip is a desert camouflage invented during the Gulf War, and later adopted by many Middle Eastern countries.

Chocolate Chip Camo
Image via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

Digital Camouflage and Others

There are more camouflage designs than even these. Predictably, once computer technology arrived, camouflage became digitized, pixilated, and modernized. Technology even paved the way for a camouflage that evaded infrared lenses.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

Each region that developed a new camouflage, developed it to match the environment of their battles. While one landscape might be broadly similar to another, small variances in pattern size and hue made each camouflage a perfect fit for its area.

Certain woodland camouflages tend toward browns, while others move toward greens. Tigerstripe and Lizard camouflage show distinctions that relate to different jungles. The same goes for Leaf camouflage, Multicam camouflage, and all the others.

Camouflage Patterns
Image via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

While camouflage patterns were becoming refined in the armed forces in the early 1900s, a wholly different approach was being adopted for British war ships. It was called Dazzle camouflage, or Razzle Dazzle. British armies had tried (and failed) to mask large war ships by painting sections of them various tones of blue to match the sky and the water. Because this did little to hide the behemoth vessels, in 1917 the artist Norman Wilkinson thought to paint them in a way that made them visually baffling.

Dazzle camouflage utilized bold stripes and swirls heading in short, changing directions. Wilkinson’s goal was to use optical trickery and render a ship’s proportions, speed, and pathway imperceptible. With Dazzle camouflage (the theory goes), an enemy might not even know if they were looking at the front or the back of a Dazzle ship.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

Wilkinson’s dazzle concept relied on much of the same illusion that stripes on a zebra employ to repel flies. Because of a zebra’s contrasting vectors, flies land on them far less than other animals. These lines confuse flies (and, Wilkinson hoped, human enemies), and mask the exact location and direction of a surface.

Image via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

Among the original European camoufleurs (including Dazzle painters), there were many Cubist artists. That includes well-known artists such as Georges Braque, Andre Mare, Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac, and others.

The stylized way these Cubist painters had already begun to abstract their subjects in paintings makes it clear that the way they distilled nature to create the first camouflage was similar. Camouflage is deeply linked to art history.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

For most of its history, camouflage has been used by the military. But, in the 1980s, camouflage emerged in fashion. Clothing made with camouflage prints arrived and felt excitingly exotic, like a safari animal, whose patterns were also popular at that time.

The fashionable camouflages did little to hide their wearers of course, and possibly even drew attention to them. At first, these garments sported the usual camouflage color schemes. However, unhindered by purpose, they strayed into unusual iterations.

Wearable camouflage flaunted highly impractical colors (bright pastels, neon). It took on artily splotched shapes, was daringly dotted with glitter, and sometimes sat on top of animal prints or florals. Camouflage as clothing delivered a land of the imagination to the consumer. But, with playful (not militaristic) intent.

Images via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

The story of camouflage is one of invention and artistry. Surely there will be more revisions and updates over time. Among the many patterns we recognize, possibly the strongest proof of camouflage’s power may sit clearly in the way it lives in our language as a noun, and also strongly as a verb.

Multi-cam Camouflage
Image via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.

For more fascinating color combos, take a look at these beauties:

Image via Shutterstock’s Camouflage Collection.


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