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Camouflage, fashion statement and lifesaver, gets a makeover from the Army

By and Michael Cotterman,

As the international fashion weeks come to a close, the top brass of critics are choosing the garments we’ll wear next winter, because fashion, by its nature, is fast-paced and future-obsessed. The same can now be said of the U.S. Army, which is developing a series of camouflage prints to wear in places it never plans to go.

In January, the Army tapped five contractors to develop a family of new camouflage patterns that can blend with any terrain, whether troops head to Somalia or Switzerland. It’s a sartorial challenge of the highest order-one that pushes design from taste to science, and dissects how the human eye perceives color, shape and texture.

Yet the Army has always had a complicated and close relationship with fashion. The first creators of camouflage were artists, designers — people who probably knew little about the battlefield.

“If you talk to individual soldiers, there is probably not a more emotional issue than their uniforms and camouflage,” said Jeff Myhre, the project lead for Program Executive Office Soldier, the Army office tasked with testing the new camouflage designs. “This process is 100 percent science-based. It’s not a fashion show — it’s not about how it looks.”

The Army is now fusing textiles with technology in a way no other industry — even the $300 billion fashion industry — can do. Yet history shows the military is indebted to tastes and creativity of designers. Both industries have always claimed their piece of the print.

What not to wear

Like many stories of both style and military defeat, this one begins in the far reaches of France. After a devastating loss during World War I, the French military traded in their impeccable red knickers for hand-painted stealth attire. Civilian painters, illustrators and yes, fashion designers called “camoufleurs,” served on the front lines, changing uniforms from bright targets to useful shields. In this French World War I military poster, aptly titled “Vive la France!” by F.A. Crepaux, a woman, symbolizing France, stands dressed in the bright uniforms that they have since retired.

Cruise wear, World War I-style

From camouflage’s inception, designers were there in the trenches, observing and creating the garments and other mechanisms for disguise. “The creation of camouflage was inherently an artistic process,” said Daniel James Cole, professor of fashion history at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “It naturally came out of many 20th-century artistic movements: post-impressionism, pointillism, and Cubism.” This photo of the USS West Mahomet circa 1918 illustrates dazzle painting, which could throw off an enemy’s perception of a ship’s shape and speed. British marine artist Norman Wilkinson developed the tactic, and many artists followed. “American Gothic” artist Grant Wood was a camoufleur in the Second World War.

Blending in in high society

Not surprisingly, Vogue magazine picked up on the fashionable utility of this military print in 1943. “The early article explained what proper military camouflage was to the Vogue reader,” said Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s European editor-at-large, who scoured the Vogue Archive for the print’s first appearance in the magazine. “The next article came in 1971, when we published a trend collage on camouflage [that] showed little pictures of society girls around town. It says, ‘It’s works: the look of uniform. It’s functional, practical, good-looking’ . . . they put it right up there with blue jeans. ”

The front lines of fashion

Although select units of the Army wore camouflage throughout the 20th century, it didn’t receive its first official camouflage uniform until the mid-’80s. “In Vietnam, some units wore the “Tiger Stripe” uniforms,” said Myhre. “But we didn’t get the Battle Dress Uniform, the first official print, until 1983.” In 1969, soldiers near the border of Cambodia wore the uniform to blend in with the terrain.

Now they want to be seen

Andy Warhol is often credited with pushing camouflage into everyday fashions. His colorful “Camouflage” prints paved the way for designers to reimagine the print. “Warhol showed that you could recolor camouflage in ’60s pop colors and make it a playful fashion print, edgier than a floral,” Bowles said. “Then [designer] Steven Sprouse took it up, recoloring it and using it for fashion garments.”

What, no pearls?

Washington even developed its own camouflage obsession in the early ’90s, thanks to a certain first lady. The “Chocolate Chip” camouflage uniform of Desert Storm sold out of surplus stores in the region after Barbara Bush donned the uniform during a visit to Saudi Arabia.

No combat boots — yet

Later, Jean Paul Gaultier made a couture collection of ball gowns from camo-printed silk tulle in 2000. After camouflage conquered French collections — showing up on the runways of Galliano and Louis Vuitton — the print lost its masculine symbolism and toughness, gaining mass appeal and popping up on children’s clothes, baseball caps and bath rugs. “It’s part of regular fashion vocabulary now because it looks cool,” Cole said. “That’s the bottom line. A lot of writers are constantly trying to create a sociological correlation. But at the end of the day, we’re attracted to the look.”

The fashion chute

Reinterpretations of the print were popular during February’s New York Fashion Week. Designer Patrik Ervell, who’s known for once repurposing vintage cotton parachutes for a collection, created a series of painted silk camouflage blouses and trousers for men and women. “Military garments are made to perform these really extreme functions and last forever,” he said. “That’s the appeal. They’re garments that have been thought out.”

Springtime in Manhattan

Even Prabal Gurung’s spring collection proved that pixelated flowers inspired by Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki could double as a camouflage, harkening back to the Warhol prints. In this sketch, Gurung reinterprets camouflage for current trends.

Fairbanks fashion week

Butch Whiting displays a new possibility for military camouflage, the woodland camouflage pattern that the Alaska-based company Kryptek. The Army selected the pattern as one the five finalists. But will fashion approve of the Army’s newest designs? “The minute the Army adopts a new recognizable pattern, the fashion world will, too,” Cole said. “History shows that fashion adopts new camouflage quickly. I’m sure it will do the same for this one.”

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