A brief history of camouflage

From 19th-century studies on animal disguises to fashionable khaki on today’s catwalks, camouflage has a long and varied history. Here, writer Jude Stewart investigates…

Commandos in training, 1940. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Camouflage is a pattern of paradox. Camouflage’s history encompasses both hiding but also being seen: confusing the eye, subverting reality and signalling both individuality and group affinities…
 

1) Camouflage in nature    

Any history of camouflage must properly start with ‘mother nature’. From wood ants to pufferfish and octopi to birds, a wide array of animals conceal themselves – sometimes amazingly, like this camouflaged octopus – from predators with camouflage.

Two British zoologists and an American painter played key roles in translating camouflage in nature into techniques humans could put to military use. One of those zoologists, Sir Edward Poulton, wrote the first book on camouflage in 1890 (The Colours of Animals). An early adherent of Darwinism, 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 – this cancels out shadowing from the overhead sun, giving the animal a flat, two-dimensional appearance. Disruptive coloration, meanwhile, refers to ‘splotchiness’ in an animal’s colouring; this visual effect helps to obscure the contours of its body.

Thayer suffered from bipolar disorder and panic attacks – conditions not helped by public criticism of his controversial theories, which gained prominence in the lead-up to the First World War. 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, including contour obliteration – basically, making it difficult to perceive a continuous form by blurring its defining edges - and shadow elimination – as the name suggests, reducing the appearance of telltale shadows.

 

2) Military khaki

Prior to the invention of the modern rifle in the mid-1800s (the earliest rifles were in use during the 15th century), militaries the world over clad their soldiers in bright shades of colour – consider, for example, British troops in their iconic madder red uniforms (red coats).

Soldiers of the 30th East Lancashire foot regiment in bright red jackets, c1850. Rischgitz Collection. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

But marksmen began wearing more inconspicuous garb to conceal themselves while picking off targets. Austrian Jägers (meaning ‘hunters’) wore light grey, while the British 95th Rifle Regiment wore dun green.

Military khaki (the term derives from the Urdu and Persian words for ‘dust’) arose in the mid-19th century, as soldiers in the British Indian Army began dyeing their white uniforms with tea and curry. Not only did khaki end the hopeless struggle to keep one’s uniform spanking white, it also reduced soldiers’ visibility from a distance.

Despite this, brighter military garb tended to dominate until the early 20th century. Why were militaries so reluctant to adopt darker uniforms? The answer lay in the evolving nature of warfare: in addition to practical considerations like durability and visibility, uniforms performed a psychological function of making soldiers feel battle-ready. Orderly lines of brightly clad soldiers marching in formation – a key feature of musket-driven warfare – gave way to guerrilla warfare. To fight and win in this new era, stealth was a core advantage.  
 

3) The First World War

A new threat darkened the horizon in the run-up to the First World War: enemy aerial reconnaissance. (Aerial attack became possible somewhat later.) As such, militaries first used camouflage patterning and tactics to hide, not people, but locations and equipment.  

The French organised the first units of camoufleurs – specialists in camouflage – in around 1914. Initial tactics were confined to painting vehicles and weaponry in disruptive patterns to blend into the surrounding landscape. Camoufleurs were both practitioners and teachers of their peculiar art. They taught other military units how to disguise their equipment with paint, to toss netting interwoven with fake leaves over a shed stocked with materiél (military equipment) and to erase any telltale truck tracks and cannon blast marks.

French soldiers at a wooden building with military camouflage, Western Front, Soissons, Aisne, France, 1917. Colour photo (Autochrome Lumière) by Fernand Cuville (1887–1927). (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

The term ‘camouflage’ itself dates to a practical joke from 16th-century France. The prankster would fashion a camouflet – a hollow paper cone, lit to smoulder at one end – and stick it under an unfortunate sleeper’s nose. The sleeper would jolt rudely awake at the first lungful of smoke.

Camouflet later referred to a lethal powder charge that could entrap a tunnelling enemy troop underground – a more deadly trick. To complete this layered etymology, the French verb camoufler means, appropriately, ‘to make oneself up for the stage’.
 

4) Camouflage goes Baroque

Camouflage techniques grew increasingly detailed as the First World War progressed, and fascination with camouflage – in popular as well as military circles – grew. Factories cranked out pâpier-maché heads by the thousands; mounted on sticks – soldiers might poke these decoys above the trench line, tempting the enemy out of his safe foxhole to fire. False trees were equally popular: regiments would sneak onto the battlefield unseen at night, fell an actual tree, then replace it with a hollowed-out replica with a soldier hidden inside.

Camouflage spread to the seas, too. In 1917, British lieutenant Norman Wilkinson introduced the concept of ‘dazzle’-painting warships to curb losses: mostly black-and-white-zigzagged ‘dazzle’ paint was supposed to throw off the enemy’s calculations of a ship’s size, speed and distance, making an accurate hit more difficult. German U-boats sank 23 British ships weekly that year, 55 in one week of April 1917 alone. ‘Dazzle-mania’ subsequently spread among Allied navies, although its actual effectiveness was never proven.  

A Royal Navy cruiser painted in dazzle camouflage in the Dardanelles, 1915. Original publication: The Illustrated War News, 26 May 1915. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

5) The Second World War

As mentioned above, evidence that camouflage actually worked was patchy. However, as the world marched towards the Second World War, the fresh threat of aerial attack prompted militaries on both sides to use camouflage more widely. With the exception of dazzle, all First World War-era camouflage tactics were revived and expanded. Military literature of the period is awash with camouflage training manuals aimed at every soldier, from callow privates to top brass.

Two Allied wins during the Second World War owed their success largely to camouflage: El Alamein in 1942, and D-Day in 1944. During the second battle of El Alamein, the Allies blocked the Germans from seizing the Suez Canal with a mind-bogglingly detailed camouflage-plan involving inflatable tanks, fake artillery blasts and – extraordinarily – hiding the entire Suez Canal from aerial view. This was the masterwork of British camoufleur and stage magician Jasper Maskelyne.

Home Guards smear on green paint and attach camouflage to each other during a camouflage training course at Fieldcraft School in South-Eastern Command, January 1942. (Photo by Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

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.

 

6) Post-Second World War

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 (snow, desert, jungle, forest). Who wore which camouflage pattern revealed colonial relationships, shifting alliances and other practical considerations (like how disastrously similar your army’s camouflage was to your latest enemy’s).

Camouflage infiltrated popular culture during both world wars – from ladies’ ‘slimming’ dress wear to the clever war paint of makeup. Consider these lyrics from the 1917 song ‘Camouflage Nut Song No. 2’ by L Wolfe Gilbert and Anatol Friedland:

Camouflage, Camouflage, that's the latest dodge,
Camouflage, Camouflage, it's not a cheese or lodge,
You buy a Ford that's second-hand,
You paint it red, it looks so grand.
And near a "Stutz" you let it stand –
that's Camouflage.

 

7) Modern camouflage

Camouflage today permeates civilian culture: it features in designs for women’s clothing from the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier, Prabal Gurung and Patrik Ervell (among many others), and musicians wearing camouflage can signal their commitment to some form of political activism – from black power (Public Enemy) to African rights (U2).

Visual artists have taken to camouflage with zeal, too. 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.

A woman walks past the painting 'Camouflage Self-Portrait' by US artist Andy Warhol during a preview of Sotheby's autumn sales of contemporary art in New York, 2 November 2007. (Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Like all technology, camouflage evolves. High-tech camouflage can now conceal body heat from enemy sensors or harness fibre-optics to match a fabric dynamically to its surroundings. Technologists are progressing towards a camouflage that bends light waves to render objects – or even people – invisible, just like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.  

Jude Stewart is the author of two books, Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, & Other Graphic Patterns (Bloomsbury USA, 2015) and ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color (Bloomsbury USA, 2013).

Jude writes about design and culture for Slate, Fast Company, and The Believer, among others, and blogs about design for Print. You can follow her on Twitter @joodstew.

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