History of Camouflage
Etymology: French, from camoufler to disguise, 1917.
1 : the disguising especially of military equipment or installations with
paint, nets, or foliage; also : the disguise so applied
2 a : concealment by means of disguise b : behavior or artifice designed
to deceive or hide
Camouflage has long been a fascinating observation in nature; animals
and insects blend themselves into the environment for protection, and
sometimes stealth for preying. Exterior patterns evolved over millions
of years of natural selection. Human beings, as hunters, analyzed and
adopted the natural scheme for their own activities in the wild.
There are two basic different types of camouflage, or a combination of
both. Firstly, animals and objects wear dull colors, or tones similar
to their surrounding, in order to merge into the background. On the other
hand, grazers and predators such as giraffes, tigers and leopards, possess
contrasting patterns that break up their shape when seen from a distance,
known as Disruptive Pattern. In other words, the concept of camouflage
takes advantage of optical illusions for basic shape and color recognition,
to disguise the silhouette from the viewer.
Primitive hunting techniques of wearing materials imitating pieces of
nature have continued till today, as in the Scottish ghillie suite, made
up of thousands of hessain attached to netting. In European history, there
are a few accounts of armies wearing animal skin and feathers for disguise
and psychological purposes, in the case of Roman light infantrymen in
the Republican era called velites, and the Balkan scouts in the
Ottoman Turkish army called delis.
Early Military Uniform
In the colonial era, most European countries adopted vivid uniforms symbolic
of their power. Limited range of weapons required combat to take place
in relatively close range which nullified reasons to be stealthy. In the
18th century, when firearms became sophisticated enough to bring snipers
on the field, the British army took hints again from hunters to introduce
forest green jackets instead of the traditional British scarlet.
Two basic colors emerged to replace colorful uniforms, the first of which
was Rifle Green, a precursor to the olive material of today. Green uniform
was adopted also by German riflemen recruited from foresters and gamekeepers.
Although the color green did not function mainly as camouflage, but it
was symbolic of the hunting origin. The second color to develop as a uniform
color was khaki, a term derived from the Persian word khak, for
dust. The British army, who wore red jackets and white uniforms, adopted
khaki uniforms to better suit the harsh campaign climates in India and
Africa. At first, hand-stained uniforms (sometimes using spice and tea)
proved vastly unpopular, but practicality outlasted style. Again, less
colorful khaki uniforms were not entirely aimed for camouflage, but these
standardized colors lasted for decades well into World War II, and became
an important backdrop for new camouflage patterns to come. Uniformed infantry
also made an impact in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary
War, and the War of 1812.
World War I
In the early 20th century, German, French, and British armies all started
to commission artists and engineers to research disruptive pattern and
to come up with experimental designs. Interestingly, the first serious
demand for camouflage was for disguising large artillery and vessels from
enemy supervision. In the first World War, when combat aviation became
popular, camouflage on the ground proved extremely effective against monochrome
aerial surveillance photos.
In this initial stage, geometric designs were incorporated into camouflage.
Toward the end of 1916, Germany introduced a new scheme called Lozenge
camouflage which was made up of polygons in four or five colors, printed
on fabric. The patterned fabric was then applied to the exterior and interior
of the plane, and customized for parts and characteristics of the fighter,
effectively dealing with various angles (although some suggest the insignia
on the plane didn't help the effect). In the same respect, British ships
were painted in "Dazzle" patterns to confuse enemy submarines
loaded with torpedoes. The Dazzle was a bold combination of distinctly
contrasting stripes and geometric patterns painted on the entire exterior
of the ship.
During this development, field soldiers did not welcome camouflage uniforms
just yet, and British and American forces continued to fight in khaki
uniforms for decades. The only recorded use was by German soldiers who
used the stahlhelm helmets with camouflage paint, inspired from
their aircraft counterpart.
World War II, the Cold War, and Vietnam
After the first World War, the Germans spearheaded the application of
camouflage on to army uniforms. After much trial, they issued the infamous
"Splinter" pattern in the 1930's, which influenced later patterns
throughout the world. The Splinter (or the Splitter) was layers of abstract
shapes against a "raining" backdrop. Subsequent patterns were
based on natural themes, such as trees and leaves, exclusively donned
by the elite Waffen-SS. At this time, most other superpowers were still
in the experimental phase, and many of the early designs were issued only
to be rejected due to its unpopularity.
In the aftermath of WW II, the Soviet Union and the United States naturally
took over the military world igniting the Cold War, and soon their camouflage
started to influence the rest. Although most refrained from referencing
the politically-charged German pattern, some of its basic influences persisted
mostly in Eastern Europe, as new patterns continued to spring up from
all sides. The Soviets came up with interesting designs such as the pixelated
cluster pattern. As for the United States, the Vietnam War provided demanding
battle fields with the vegetation to necessitate camouflage, and eventually
the Woodland and Tigerstripe patterns became popular in the field.
Camouflage Today and Beyond
Today's camouflage is not only customized for terrain, weather and light
conditions, it also symbolizes the national identity for the military.
Idiosyncratic designs represent a face much like a flag, as countries
draw up unique patterns of their own upon independence. Also, as technology
advances at a quick pace, modern camouflage must now take into account
infrared and thermal vision, alongside further research on computer-generated
visual patterns. Camouflage patterns enjoy strong support from military
aficionados, civilian fashion, and the design world; it has literally
blended in with society. With the future optical
camouflage as seen in the sci-fi movie "Predator" and the
anime "Ghost in the Shell" in store (or stores), humans will
be able to adapt to the environment dynamically, thus becoming more and
more like chameleons.