NOTES ON CAMO
After decades of military history, camouflage was ironically borrowed by Vietnam War protesters and rebelliously worn by '90s youth tribes. Over time, it lost not only its mimetic functionality but also the countercultural cachet attached to it, becoming an increasingly amorphous, infuriatingly ambiguous floating signifier—equally sported by Hello Kitty tote bags, Andy Warhol paintings, and RNA rallies. A brief history of the quintessential pattern of outdoor clothing, from warfare to detournement to nonsense.
ARTWORKS: CHRIS GLICKMAN
There are two ways in which camouflage can function. The first, and most obvious, is allowing the user to blend into its own surroundings, mimicking the survival instincts of animals such as the stonefish or leaf insect, which possess the ability to alter their appearance in order to avoid predators. The other is to dazzle: not so much hiding in plain sight, but rather disorientating a would-be predator by offering some sort of sensory overload.
As camouflage has moved from the battlefield to the everyday attire of city-dwelling twenty- and thirty-somethings, it would be fair to argue that its most common usage is intended to dazzle. Rather than shield or disguise, it has become a way to stand out—a shift which has seen its graphic strategies subsumed into fashion and visual culture’s lingua franca in the process.
Camouflage is malleable, both visually and conceptually. Occasionally, it’s still used to convey notions of war; more often, it's used to denote an outsider sensibility. Largely, however, its usage means nothing at all. A camouflage in 2020 doesn’t need to blend or dazzle for it to be recognized as a camouflage; nor does it need to communicate anything, despite being tied up in decades of military history and counterculture movements. It appears on soccer shirts and in Pepsi adverts, in Gucci collections and on Hello Kitty tote bags, sliding seamlessly between contexts. Camouflage has never been more prevalent within visual culture—and yet one still can’t be quite sure as to why.
The first camouflages weren’t really camouflages at all. They were deceptive only in that they somewhat matched the tonality of their surroundings, but they didn’t truly obscure, conceal or dazzle. Perhaps the earliest example of this proto-camo was in the fourth century, during the Gallic Wars, when Julius Caesar sent ships painted in a shade of “Venetian blue” to carry out reconnaissance missions. Those onboard also dressed in this fetching hue in a further attempt to blend in with the ocean. Native American hunters are also said to have donned animal skins while hunting, so as not to alert their prey.
Aside from carrying out the odd bit of sea-bound snooping or obscuring yourself from the view of that evening’s dinner, there was largely no need for camouflage at this stage in history, as conflicts were still typically settled at close quarters. The invention of long-range guns would fundamentally change this, illustrated by the two Boer Wars, which bookended the nineteenth century. The first, from 1880-01, saw British forces adopt a khaki uniform, hoping to blend into the arid landscape; such was the accuracy of the opposition’s marksmen. By the time the British went back for seconds in 1902, this “drab” uniform had become standard-issue.
What we recognize as camouflage today didn’t truly emerge until the First World War, when armies–in particular, the French–began to enlist the help of “camouflage officers,” or camoufleurs, to design and implement patterns for evading the enemy. (As noted by academic Roy Behrens in the extensive, hyper-nerdy tome Disruptive Pattern Material by British streetwear label Maharishi, the same French term, roughly translated as “veil” or “to disguise,” also gave rise to the word “camouflage.”) Early camouflage officers included the English surrealist artist Sir Ronald Penrose, as well as zoologists such as John Graham Kerr—fitting, as the process was neither entirely scientific nor purely aesthetic. Writing in 1931, the French artist and naval camoufleur Pierre Gattier stated that “[camouflage] should also take account of the psychological effects on the observer’s retina. If you surround a geometric figure with a red stripe edged in blue, it seems to stand out. Inversely, if you surround the same shape with a blue shape edged in red, it appears to ‘sink’ below the surface.”
In the decades that followed, camouflage would fragment into various subgenres, each specific to a certain combat need. Tigerstripe camouflage was introduced in the ‘60s by South Vietnamese armed forces in an attempt to mimic the dense jungles of Vietnam (a strategy soon copied by U.S. forces); Flecktarn—the German compound of “spot” and “camouflage”—was designed in the ‘70s and finally implemented by German forces in 1989. Variations of this dappled camo have since been adopted by the Chinese, Polish, Danish, and Belgian armies. There’s also desert camo, snow camo, and rain camo.
Despite the nature of modern warfare long having evolved past the need for camouflage uniforms in most combat situations, they have largely remained, an enduring symbol of uniformity and identity.
The first widespread adoption of camouflage by civilians came in the 1960s, as protests mounted against the Vietnam War and participants ironically borrowed its uniform to make their point. Camouflage had appeared away from armed combat before—for instance, the Dazzle Ball, hosted by the Chelsea Arts Club in 1919, where the dress code mimicked the black-and-white patterns of dazzle camouflage ships—but the Vietnam protests were the first that tied camouflage to a sense of identity and counterculture, an association that remains to this day.
An abundance of army surplus stores, selling old military jackets and camo fatigue pants for affordable prices, has meant that few post-‘60s subcultures in the U.S. have not had some sort of camo-moment. The raucous protagonists of New York’s Hardcore scene during the ‘80s and ‘90s adopted it because it looked tough, made you feel tough, and actually was tough—an important factor, considering how often they encountered flailing limbs and clashing bodies at their shows. Rap groups like Public Enemy also adopted camouflage for similar aesthetic reasons, while the rivethead subculture of the 1990s wanted clothes reflective of the raw industrial dance music they favored.
In European club culture, camo became something of an unofficial uniform as well. In a 1992 article for The Face, Gavin Hills wrote of camo-clad ravers in Berlin’s Tresor club: “It’s a look unique to Berlin clubs, and they’re proud of their innovation. It suits the discipline of the music well, and works to help diffuse the city’s military connotations.” Gabber aficionados in Holland, who also had a predilection for hard, relentless music, similarly gravitated towards bomber jackets and camouflage fatigue pants during the same period.
At some point, this expression of youthful rebellion and counterculture also became a trope of the very same thing. Years of prevalence within genuine, vibrant subcultures had lent it a credibility, making it ideal conceptual fodder for fashion brands and marketing agencies. By the early aughts, it began to appear on red carpets, sported on the likes of then-Disney-star Ashley Tisdale and pop punk musician Avril Lavigne, who was signed to a subsidiary of Sony Music at the time. Camo was viewed as something the youth would always gravitate towards—which, even if true, feels somehow cynical and dirty to say out loud. It was an easy, almost lazy way to signal a sense of rebellion—or, at very least, teenage angst.
Christos, a 1992 portrait by Wolfgang Tillmans depicting a club kid dressed in camouflage pants and combat boots, perhaps best illustrates this paradigm. As an image, it captures how camouflage was genuinely worn by youth tribes in the ‘90s, at illegal parties often hosted in old war bunkers. And in a neat or insidious twist of fate, depending on your perspective, that’s where the image remains today, housed in Sammlung Boros. Once the site of one of Berlin’s wildest, most hedonistic weekend-long parties, the former Nazi-era bunker is now a converted gallery-stroke-living space owned by Christian Boros, who used the fortunes he made in advertising during the ‘90s to amass one of the largest private art collections in Europe.
Affordable and rugged, it is perhaps no surprise that various subcultures have gravitated towards camouflage since the ‘60s—but its prevalence within men’s fashion, where it has often been stripped of these two qualities, is a little bit harder to make sense of.
More likely, I think, is that camouflage’s seep into menswear—and later, fashion as a whole—is to do with the lies we tell ourselves. We construct idealistic but ultimately false narratives about the clothes we wear. Within men’s clothing, the trait most commonly sought is that it “does stuff.” The garment exists not just as an element of clothing, but also as a sort of tool. The jacket with a multitude of pockets provides storage; the carpenter pant has a woven loop of fabric on which you can presumably carry some form of hammer or wrench. In the right environment, the camouflage shirt would function, in theory, if the wearer needed to evade a predator. That these functions are never used is irrelevant, as they allow the wearer mental comfort and the ability to reassure oneself that they are not simply indulging in “fashion,” a pursuit that many men would have traditionally deemed frivolous. And while much of that thinking has long been swept aside, the menswear tropes and archetypes it spawned remain.
Few designers better encapsulate the traditional menswear consumer’s need for their clothes to do stuff, to be more than just clothes, than Italian fashion designer Massimo Osti. Founder of brands such as CP Company and Stone Island, Osti made jackets that could be turned into a tent, house a built-in Walkman stereo, or survive some form of nuclear fallout. In the formative years of Stone Island, launched in 1982, the brand regularly produced camouflage garments on their unique Tela Stella fabric, said to be inspired by the tarpaulin which covered army trucks. By the end of the decade, however, Osti’s camouflage obsession had mutated. No longer satisfied by standard-issue camouflage configurations, he tasked Giuliano Balboni, director of his in-house print and dye lab, with creating what we know today as the 1987 Ice Jacket, a camouflage field parka which would change color in relation to the temperature, mimicking camouflage’s environmental origins. Balboni would later describe it as “the hardest thing [he’d] ever done,” but it was also a precursor for the weird, warped iterations of camouflage which have since become more commonplace within fashion.
The cover of Capone-N-Noreaga’s 1997 album The War Report is one fitting of its title, as the camo-clad New York rap duo are flanked by an army of themselves, standing in front of two imposing tower blocks. The message here isn’t hard to decipher: it intimates a certain chest-out toughness that rap music, and particularly East Coast rap music, was known for during that era. Aesthetically, the choice simply reflected the prevailing hip-hop landscape of the time—but fast-forward a decade, and camouflage had become increasingly amorphous, often used as a means of asserting a certain ostentatious flamboyance. Few embodied this better than Soulja Boy, pictured in a bubblegum-hewed camouflage hoodie by A Bathing Ape (aka Bape) on his 2007 track “I Got Me Some Bapes.” Or perhaps Lil Wayne, who, for a period around 2005, had a penchant for a Codeine-leaning shade of purple camouflage. The garments in question were also produced by Bape, with the Japanese brand introducing its woozy “color camo” in 2004—a clear departure from the more traditional takes on tribal and tigerstripe that had come before, as earthy hues gave way to technicolor interpretations, acting as a visual metaphor for rap as a whole.
Part of this was brought about by a natural shift, both in streetwear and rap. By this time, people were used to Kanye wearing preppy pink polo shirts and Pharrell’s skate-influenced Billionaires Boys Club wares. Cam’ron had even appeared in his iconic pink mink ensemble (complete with matching flip phone) as early as 2002. And while Cam’ was living proof that battle-hardened rap personas were still profitable, camouflage fatigues were no longer required. Either by its sheer proliferation within mainstream culture, or by the fact that it had been recreated in a multitude of eye-watering forms, the intended meaning of wearing camouflage began to become hazy. The candyfloss fuzz that affected that era of mid-to late-aughts rap had also enveloped its dress codes, and at this point, camouflage could mean anything as well as nothing: a symbol of nonconformity or toughness, but also merely a pop culture prop.
In a sense, this was not an entirely new development. Camouflage has always had an inherent ambiguity woven into its fabric, at once visually loaded and devoid of meaning. The final works he created before his death in 1987 saw Andy Warhol creating a series of camouflage silkscreens, rendered in conventional camo colors as well as acidic lime and hot pink while nodding to his long-held fascination with Abstract Expressionism. Writing of the series in the year of his death for the New York Times, Roberta Smith reflected: “The very shallowness of Warhol's art is subversive, and his disdain for art's normal ‘depth’ infuriating to many,” adding in a later article that the works had an “alluring yet vacuous mystery, summing up that special Warholian mixture of being and nothingness.”
In 2014, the New York painter Lucien Smith unveiled a similar series titled “Tigris,” which saw him riff on tigerstripe camouflage. The series of paintings was also reflective of Smith’s own cultural and aesthetic grounding: along with being one of a generation of artists who garnered unfathomable wealth and acclaim so early in their career—the result of an emerging wave of monied, would-be collectors, each gambling on who they thought was the next big thing—Smith was also a poster boy for the streetwear label Supreme, which regularly applied similar camouflage motifs to their clothing.
In his accompanying catalogue essay for “Tigris,” former Artforum editor David Rimanelli described the paintings as the “cumulative blending of signifiers from Asian, American, and European histories [through which] Smith’s work embeds culturally and psychologically loaded topics within a formal language of painting and design.” A more cynical viewer might consider Smith’s use of camouflage as simply giving the people what they wanted or had come to expect, gaining visibility by employing a symbol already steeped in counter-cultural cachet.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Smith, who found himself in a unique position so early in his career. (The “Tigris” series was rumored to start at around $80,000 per canvas.) But it does speak to the fact that as the years and decades have worn on, camouflage has become what French theorist Roland Barthes described as a “floating signifier.” An evolution of the linguistic term originally coined by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Barthes describes a floating signifier as a symbol or an image so open to a multitude of valid interpretations that the viewer can project whatever meaning they wish onto it. With “Tigris,” Smith proved that the cultural ambiguity surrounding camouflage doesn’t necessarily dull its power, but can instead add a certain intangible allure.
In September 2012, Kanye West was pictured outside Celine’s AW13 fashion show wearing a green Supreme pullover that bore a real-tree camouflage motif—one which West would later return to in his own fashion design practice for his brand, YEEZY. The same year, season one of the American reality TV show Duck Dynasty introduced the world to a family of hunting enthusiasts named the Robertsons. Despite later becoming embroiled in controversy after one member expressed homophobic views in an interview with GQ in 2013, and while others have repeatedly appeared on stage at Donald Trump rallies, the show and its spin-offs have remained successful. To describe the Robertsons as having a penchant for camouflage would be an understatement, such is its prominence throughout episodes and in much of the accompanying promotional material. More specifically, the trio opted for "real-tree” camouflage, a specific strain of camo invented by Bill Jordan for hunters, which derives its effectiveness from its realistic mix of tree branches and foliage.
Real-tree is the go-to choice for American hunters and, one would therefore presume, many card-carrying members of America’s National Rifle Association. For the most part, the resultant crossover with America’s far-right is merely anecdotal or pictorial—but scroll through enough images of far-right U.S. protests in recent years, from COVID-19 demonstrations to Black Lives Matter counter-protests, and you’ll likely see something resembling a rag-tag militia, sporting guns, tactical gear, and camouflage clothing—typically either real-tree or Operational Camouflage Pattern, which is used by the U.S. army.
The chosen aesthetic of these Second Amendment crusaders seems to somewhat comically mirror recent trends in fashion. Fashion designer Heron Preston’s debut collection at Paris Fashion Week in 2017 featured prominent use of real-tree camouflage alongside Martin Luther King graphics and a wider message of ecological responsibility. Streetwear stalwarts Stüssy, Supreme and Carhartt WIP have also used iterations of this specific camouflage in their collections in recent seasons. Even the cover of KALEIDOSCOPE Issue 33 saw Virgil Abloh, founder of Off-White and men’s creative director at Louis Vuitton, don a pair of real-tree pants. Meanwhile, the work of Matthew Williams at Alyx has also tied in similar themes of new-age militarism, with straps and clips and other details that would typically be described as “utilitarian,” were it not for the fact these details seem largely for show.
Most of these brands are what you’d class as outwardly liberal, expressing their values through anti-racism t-shirts (Supreme, 2016), Martin Luther King graphics, the diversity of their casting or efforts towards sustainability. And perhaps their use of real-tree camouflage was deliberate, a devilish detournement of white American conservativism. But more likely, it’s the curse of camouflage, which ensures that the deeper you go in search of answers, and the more you attempt to create an overarching narrative around it, the more it seems to confuse and confound. What can be said is that it’s reached a point where not only is functionality irrelevant, but also, with the correct composition, almost anything can be considered a camouflage. The dense floral prints of Belgian designer Dries Van Noten, for example, could be interpreted as camouflage, as could the glitchy digital graphics that appear in Japanese streetwear label Cav Empt’s most recent sneaker collaboration with Nike, which seemed to reference multi-scale or “digital” camouflage, with its patchwork of pixels intended to minimize contrast between the wearer’s silhouette and their surroundings.
What’s been perhaps the most interesting use of camouflage in fashion in recent years didn’t even appear on a piece of clothing. In 2017, luxury Italian outerwear brand Moncler enlisted Chinese artist Liu Bolin to create a campaign drawing on his signature aesthetic, in which he camouflages himself against various backdrops: stacked aisles in supermarkets, a patchwork of national flags, red velvet seats in a theatre. Shot by Annie Lebovitz, the campaign saw Bolin camouflage himself in a more traditional setting: the forest. While the front section of magazines that house these adverts often act like a carousel of faces—actors, musicians, models, and influencers—which quickly begin to look similar and unremarkable, Bolin’s Moncler advert was purposefully incongruous, blending in due to its lack of a “face.” Even if only for a moment, it asked the reader to pause and look closer, to squint and peer into the bushes in search of something. In creating this unexpected visual dissonance, Bolin arguably captured the spirit of why fashion labels so often gravitate towards camouflage in the first place.
It would be easy to simply dismiss camouflage and argue that this once-powerful cultural symbol has been co-opted and commodified to the point of meaninglessness. One could say that at this point, it communicates nothing—which, in a sense, is true. But you could interpret many of the great archetypes of subcultural uniforms in the same way: the repurposed fishtail parka worn by mods; nondescript Carhartt jackets, robust enough for loitering on street corners and roomy enough to store spray cans for graffiti; unblemished Nike Air Force 1s, lovingly dubbed “uptowns” by New Yorkers, and their equally austere counterparts, the wheat-colored Timberland boot. Each is essentially a blank canvas, undisrupted by branding or too much implicit meaning, in a way that allows the wearer and their peers to impart their own identity onto it. A uniform of sorts, a bit like the army.
This is how camouflage functions: the clues are given in the surrounding context. The camouflage-wearing COVID-19 protestor bearing an AR-15 rifle and the kid wearing Stray Rats or Supreme are not the same. The interpretations of what camouflage means are as endless as its variations. Those meanings are layered and varied, even messy and conflicting at points. There is no single correct interpretation or take on camouflage within visual culture—it merely mirrors its surroundings. Which is kind of the point.