Duds in Disguise: A History of Camouflage Clothing

Close-up of camo pants
Image is my own / All rights reserved

While the trend for wearing ‘camo’ as a matter of fashion dates back just a few decades, camouflaged garments of one kind or another will have been among the first ways in which humans covered their bodies. Camouflage — which is to say a pattern intended to conceal its wearer within an environment — is a term that entered the English language in the late 19th century from the French camoufler meaning ‘to disguise’. Its practical use, however, dates to the earliest human societies who needed to disguise and conceal themselves while hunting using mud, foliage, feathers, or animal skins — not unlike the animals they were stalking.

Several millennia on, modern warfare would prove to be among the best-known and most widely-used applications of camouflage today. Military application took far longer to catch on than the hunting equivalent, though. It was only with the advent of long-range weapons that camouflage was first introduced into martial contexts in any robust way. Mediaeval warfare didn’t require soldiers to disguise themselves since hand-to-hand combat was conducted in close quarters. Even the arrival of firearms didn’t change this much at first, since the long-distance fighting they enabled was still not sizable enough to enable shooters to hide and fire at the same time. All of that would change, however, with the invention of the rifle.

Military sharpshooters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like hunters stalking in nature, were the first soldiers to regularly conceal themselves during warfare, although this practice remained the preserve of an elite and specialised selection of fighters at first. But during the First World War the use of camouflage became more prevalent. Once again, the practice was spurred on by a novel and more threatening technology: In this case, the aeroplane.

SS Empress of Russia 1918 painted in dazzle camouflage
Dazzle camouflage painted on the Empress of Russia merchant cruiser
Image credit: Stewart Bale / Public domain

The use of aerial reconnaissance during WWI necessitated more urgent and creative means of concealment by both sides of the conflict. Striking and disruptive patterns were painted onto guns, tanks, and aircraft to throw off the enemy and while the vast majority of soldiers still wore single-colour combat uniforms, early instances of individual camouflage became more prominent among soldiers themselves. It was only during WWII that the latter would be developed at a greater scale. 

Some of the first military-use camouflaged garments were the Denison Smock issued to British paratroopers in 1941, followed shortly by the camouflage overalls first used by the US Marines in 1943 during the Pacific War. The very first mass-produced camo uniforms, however, were created in Germany in the 1930s. While some of these early garments proved unpopular among the troops to begin with, they soon caught on for their evident practicality, in addition to their impressive and intimidating appearance.

Despite this appeal, camouflage did not cross over into civilian life until the Vietnam War, a conflict that would cement camo combat gear as standard across the globe and for decades to come. Ironically, it also came to redefine it in some quarters as a symbol of anti-war protest and resistance. Like the M65 field jacket I wrote about earlier this week, camouflage surplus items worn by protestors, many of whom were veterans, came to define the anti-war opposition of the early 1970s and incorporated it into the radical chic of the time. 

Marine photographers wear camouflage paint and clothing
Image credit: The U.S. National Archives / No known copyright restrictions

In the following decade, hip-hop similarly embraced the pattern as an emblem of protest and urban warfare. Around the same time gay club scenes originating in San Francisco and New York embraced ‘macho’ military looks by repurposing military wear. By the 1980s, both of these subcultures were going mainstream and would inform much of the pop culture aesthetic of the following decade with era-defining camouflage combat trousers being perhaps the best example of camo’s ubiquity by the mid-1990s. 

But perhaps the first instance of camouflage crossing over into civilian life happened nearly a century prior thanks to the Dazzle Ball held at the Royal Albert Hall on the evening of 12 March 1919. Organised by the Chelsea Arts Club, famed for its themed balls, the occasion took inspiration from the Great War, which had just come to a close a few months prior and, as covered by the Illustrated London News, saw ‘the art of naval camouflage applied to fancy dress’.

The connection between fine art and the art of camouflage is indeed a longstanding one. When Picasso first spotted camouflage-painted artillery in the streets of Paris during WWI, he is said to have declared ‘It is we who created that!’ While Picasso no doubt had in mind the influence of cubism and modern art on the look of these designs, he was equally right in a more literal sense owing to the number of famous artists who contributed their design and painting skills to the war efforts of the early twentieth century. These included such figures as Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola, a Parisian portraitist who is credited as the first artist to camouflage artillery on 3 August 1918, alongside other famed French artists including Marcel Duchamp, André Mare, Jacques Villon, and his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon among others. Britain boasted its own artistic effort populated by Solomon J. Solomon, Roland Penrose, and Ernest Shepard, with the latter going on to illustrate A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books.

No wonder then that the world of fashion would come to embrace a design forged in warfare but born from aesthetics. Camouflage has spanned the realms of streetwear and couture and countless brands and designers have put their stamp on the style over the years, including Paul Smith, Versace, Louis Vuitton, Hardy Blechman, Yohji Yamamoto, Valentino Garavani, Jean Paul Gaultier, A Bathing Ape, Neighborhood, Undercover, and Stüssy.

Man wearing a camouflage jacket
Image credit: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

There is a certain irony in a print intended for military concealment becoming an all too conspicuous mark of fashion. But, as Jonathan Miller points out in his introduction to Tim Newark’s book on the subject, camouflage has long been flush with contradiction:

‘[It] is both an emblem of military might and a symbol of subversion; a popular, even beautiful form of decoration that is also a tool of war; an abstract representation of the natural environment that was invented as a defence against deadly man-made machines.’

Perhaps appropriately then, the fine line between fitting in and standing out while wearing camo blurs and blends just like splotches on the print itself.

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