Camouflage is a design of contradictions. From the deliberate garishness of the first dazzle patterns through to designs intended for city warfare, camouflage marks the application of graphic art philosophies upon the practicalities of warfare. The resulting creation has proven devastatingly effective, yet also timelessly stylish...
The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, John Singleton Copley
From Cromwell's New Modern Army onwards the British Army was known for the scarlet of their tunics, earning them the nickname 'Redcoats'.
It wasn't until the Seven Year War (1756-1763) that the long range Rogers’ Rangers unit dressed in grey and green to conceal themselves from distance. The British Rifle Regiment adopted green uniforms as long-range combat became more prevalent during the Napoleonic Wars – thus coining the shade ‘rifle green’ – but it was not until the first War of Independence in India that the British Army began issuing khaki as standard.
The 1902 Boer War (which also saw the introduction of the Ghilie suit) marked the point at which Britain determined that scarlet red tunics no longer suited the battlefield.
British Navy ships in dazzle camouflage and contemporary Vorticist art detail
Enormous casualties during the First World War led the French to the same conclusion; in 1915, they abandoned their red, white and blue uniform and created a dedicated camouflage unit to research methods of disguise and concealment. From manufactured observation trees to elaborate disguises for tanks and weapon emplacements, both sides raced to better conceal their hand.
The British Army created their own camouflage unit a year later. Utilising Vorticist and Cubist influences alongside zoological principles they developed 'dazzle' camouflage patterns, which worked by distraction rather than concealment.
Based on a disruptive principle, as seen in the natural world, dazzle camouflage (called 'razzle dazzle' in the United States) obscured the exact distance or direction of travel of a ship, making it harder for enemy submarines to accurately target.
While dazzle camo was good for morale, it was difficult to prove how successful it actually was at protecting ships. Following advances in range finder technology, the practice was redundant by the Second World War.
The Denison Smock as worn by the 6th Airborne Division and Field Marshall Montgomery
The British Army introduced a brush stroke camouflage design (or Disruptive Pattern Material) in the early 1940s. The Parachute Regiment and British Commandos used the camouflaged Denison Smock to protect them as they dropped behind enemy lines, and the design was so successful that it remained in use until the 1970s.
The camouflage pattern was hand-painted on to the earliest Denison Smocks with broad brushes, giving a truly random, blended appearance. This proved particularly useful for forces in North Africa and Italy – forces such as the Desert Rats.
Since then militaries around the world have continued to develop their own camouflage designs for use in different environments. From the wilderness to the city, there is a pattern optimised for every environment.
Camouflage entered the cultural lexicon almost as soon as it appeared. In 1919, the Chelsea Arts Club held a ‘Dazzle Ball’ featuring black and white garments inspired by dazzle patterns. The Illustrated London News stated that “the total effect was brilliant and fantastic”, and the show had a profound impact upon the fashions of the day.
As camouflage designs have evolved, so to have the fashions that have utilised it. As camouflage represents a huge point of overlap between military history and the world of fashion, it is only fitting that we’ve developed some patterns of our own over the years…
All Mapped Out is the latest such collection. Our unique pattern makes full use of our historical influence with inspiration coming once again from the IWM archives; in this case, the discovery of a silk map issued to British forces by MI9.
Camouflage inflects seamlessly between civilian life and life on the front. From concealment to highlight, it is proving to be a flexible, adaptable and timeless design concept.
Header image element © IWM (H 8059)