Camouflage is the go-to military print for personnel looking for a fashionable edge. While it may not be office-appropriate, camo does work for smart casual occasions.

Top Tip

Pair a faded camo-print tee under a navy blazer and then khaki chinos and white sneakers for a cool weekend look. Or replace the sneakers for army brown leather lace-ups – no socks with cuffs rolled.

Camo footwear fires-up an off-duty look, ranging from sliders to sneakers. Retro-style trainers with velcro tabs and suede panels complement the camo-pattern; pairing the footwear with more demure pieces like black slim-fit jeans and in a crisp white Oxford shirt. Then chuck on a parka for the cooler months. Military boots elevate the army games, especially with camo-print socks slightly exposed under roller chino cuffs.

Alternatively, see the visual examples above of how to integrate the print into your wardrobe. The secret? Never go full camo – keep it one camo piece at a time.

Camouflage History

Camouflage is a pattern of paradox that encompasses both hiding but also being seen, i.e. confusing the eye, subverting reality and signalling both individuality and group affinities.

Camouflage or Die

Inspired by nature, it would finally be two British zoologists and an American painter that played a key role in translating camouflage into techniques humans could put to military use.

One of those zoologists, Sir Edward Poulton believed that animal mimicry (imitation) for concealment was proof of natural selection.

The American painter Abbott Thayer popularised two particular concepts of camouflage:

Countershading

explains the lighter underbellies common to many animals that cancel out shadowing from the overhead sun

Disruptive Coloration

refers to the visual effect ‘splotchiness’ in an animal’s colouring that helps to obscure the contours of its body

Despite public criticism his controversial theories gained prominence in the lead-up to World War I. Thayer defended those theories stoutly until his death in 1921.

In 1940, Zoologist Hugh Cott built on Poulton’s more scientific concepts with ideas of his own in 1940, including:

Contour Obliteration

making it difficult to perceive a continuous form by blurring its defining edges

Shadow Elimination

reducing the appearance of telltale shadows

Khaki

British Red Coats
British Red Coats

Orderly lines of brightly clad soldiers marching in formation is a key feature of musket-driven warfare. Sneak attack is an obvious way to cause chaos in the order. Guerrilla warfare was born. To fight and win in this new era, stealth was a core advantage.

Prior to the introduction of the modern rifle in the mid-1800s, militaries the world over clad their soldiers in impressive bright shades of colour in order to impress, intimidate, stand out as a unity and project authority. But marksmen began wearing more inconspicuous garb to conceal themselves while picking off targets.

In the British Indian Army mid-19th century, soldiers began dyeing their white uniforms with tea and curry dust. Dust in Urdu/Persian languages is “khaki”, hence, the color definition came to be. Not only did khaki end the hopeless struggle to keep one’s uniform spanking white, it also reduced soldiers’ visibility from a distance.

The Eye in the Sky

French front - World War I
French soldiers at a wooden building with military camouflage in 1917.

A new strategic advantage saw the light of day in the run-up to World War I: Aerial reconnaissance. The need for camouflage patterning and tactics to hide locations and equipment became evident.

The French organised the first units of camoufleurs in 1914 that specialised in material camouflage. Initial tactics were confined to painting vehicles and weaponry in disruptive patterns to blend into the surrounding landscape.

Camouflage techniques grew increasingly detailed as the First World War progressed, and fascination with camouflage grew.

The Inflation Sensation

Inflatable Dummy Tanks in World War II
Inflatable dummy tanks at the Rhine River in World War II

As the world marched towards World War II, the fresh threat of aerial attack prompted militaries on both sides to use camouflage more widely. First World War-era camouflage tactics were revived and expanded.

Two Allied wins during World War II owed their success largely to camouflage:

El Alamein

During the second battle of El Alamein in 1942, the Allies blocked the Germans from seizing the Suez Canal with a mind-bogglingly detailed camouflage-plan involving inflatable tanks, fake artillery blasts and in fact hiding the entire Suez Canal from aerial view.

D – Day

Prior to D-Day, the Allies staged a false build-up of troops in Scotland and Kent, while hiding their true efforts to amass troops to storm Normandy. The ruse continued once they landed in France with the ‘Ghost Army’ – a sham-army standing in for the actual US battalion rushing the Normandy beaches.

Now You See Me … Now You don’t

Andy Warhol - Camouflage Self Portrait
A woman walks past the painting “Self Portrait (Green Camouflage)” by US artist Andy Warhol

Camouflage infiltrated popular culture during both world wars – from ladies’ ‘slimming’ dress wear to the clever war paint of makeup.

The Second World War saw the rise of mechanical printed patterns onto fabric, bringing the distinctive variations of pattern into sharper focus. Each nation had not one, but several unique camouflage patterns, with different versions matched to the battle landscape such as: snow, desert, jungle and forest.

Camouflage today permeates civilian culture: it features in designs for women’s and men’s clothing and wearing camouflage can signal commitment to some form of political activism from black power (Public Enemy) to African rights (U2).

Andy Warhol’s Camouflage Self-Portrait (1986) hit the art scene at the height of the Cold War, a time of near-constant warfare that, confusingly, rarely officially declared itself as such.

Cecilia Paredes

Cecilia ParedesICourtesy of Artist & Photographer; Cecilia Paredes

The eye is caught by colour. Pattern engages the mind. Ambiguity fuels the imagination. This is no mere accident; these traits have evolved as essential to long-term survival. Colour changes with ripeness, with hotness, with disease; it calls to us, warns us, hides from us. It is by recognizing and understanding patterns that we can order the world around us, describe and anticipate it’s ever-unfolding narratives and, in turn, represent this knowledge in symbolic configurations of our own devising. But it is ambiguity that engages us most strongly. The uncertain must be investigated, analyzed, assayed against memory and made prescient in the mind’s eye.

While the play of young animals and children prefigures the dealings of adult life (conflict, cooperation, danger, love …), the skills we now associate with story-telling and the arts invert the process, repurposing the traits of survival to a kind of play. It is a reflexive kind of play that seeks not just to understand the exterior world, but ourselves. For it is through that understanding of self that we can reach out empathetically to conceive the interior life of others. The ‘landscapes’ of the Peruvian artist Cecilia Paredes draw on and articulate this interior experience. Her body lies camouflaged amid the ornate designs of chintz and wallpaper like a fugitive being in a prehistoric jungle. Is this the lair of the predator or the hiding place of the prey? Perhaps neither … For Cecilia Paredes, it is the marginal beings that she loves most. The misunderstood. Loners.

Inspired by the mysterious quiet of artist Cecilia Paredes’ “photoperformances”, the video for Mia Maestro’s single “Blue Eyed Sailor” depicts a perpetual metamorphosis. Covered in ornate body makeup, Maestro is camouflaged against matching backdrops as she sings at once about the breed of butterfly that inspired key visuals in this clip, and of a bygone romance with an enchanting Blue Eyed Sailor who transformed repeatedly over the course of a courtship.

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