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. ”