The History of Camouflage

For centuries, Camouflage has been used to help people and objects blend in with their surrounding elements. From military camouflage to high fashion and novelty prints on everything from clothing to backpacks, camouflage has a long and varied history.

Camouflage in Nature

Blending in with nature is not a new concept. Animals have used camouflage tactics to blend into their surroundings and hide from predators or prey since the beginning of time. For example, a stone flounder is a flatfish that will lie on the ocean floor to hide from predators, blending in with gravel or sand as it waits for its prey. A lion’s golden fur provides camouflage while it’s hunting. Lizards and frogs match their environments so well that even the human eye can’t always spot them.

Battlefield Camouflage

When it comes to combat, the ability to not be seen can be the difference between life and death. The first camouflage tactics were used to hide vehicles and weapons—not people—in disruptive patterns to blend in with their surroundings.

“Dazzle painting,” in which ships were painted with bold stripes or splotches, became popular during World War I. Created by British marine artist Norman Wilkinson, ships from all major allied forces were painted in bold patterns that made them visible to opposing armies, but their size and direction were extremely hard to decipher. By the summer of 1918, the “Dazzle” technique had been applied to more than 2,300 British warships and vessels, and it served a huge purpose of boosting morale.

The Beginning of Military Camouflage 

Since the middle of the 19th century, armies began using military khaki to reduce visibility from a distance. The British dyed their white uniforms with coffee, tea, and ink, resulting in the lighter brown shade known as khaki. However, brightly colored military uniforms still dominated going into World War I. With the development of long-range rifles, it quickly became apparent that the ability to hide during combat would be increasingly important.

Military camouflage uniforms date back to 1915 when the French enlisted the help of artists to develop new uniforms after a crushing defeat by the Germans during the First World War. The French army abandoned its uniforms consisting of white gloves and red pantaloons. The United States followed suit in 1917. At the time, camouflage became popular in the form of hand-painted uniforms, decoy tanks, paper-mache carcasses (snipers used as blinds), and even faux bridges.

By the second World War hand-painted uniforms were ditched for full-on woven or printed uniforms. Germany used such techniques to develop tunics, ponchos, helmet coverings, and reversible field jackets in camouflage patterns suitable for various terrains as well as winter vs. summer seasons.

Compared to the first World War, WWII utilized camouflage more heavily to conceal weapons, tanks, and other vehicles as aerial attacks became more prevalent. Visual deception, as opposed to concealment, was another important warfare tactic. Similar to the British “Dazzle” paintings, allied military officials relied on tricking their adversaries into making inaccurate judgments and decisions regarding an object’s importance or the position/strength of their units.

Digital Camouflage: The Disruptive Pattern

Digital camouflage provides a disruptive pattern effect by helping armies remain unseen from a distance. Although adopted by most national militaries today, the digital patterns were first developed during World War II, when Johann Georg Otto Schick combined micro- and macro-patterns in one design. 

In the 1990s, the Canadian military became the first to adopt a digital camo pattern that replaced traditional swirls with a pixelated, computer-generated design. The idea of digital camo was not to make the uniforms less visible but instead to create a visual noise that would allow the soldiers to blend in with their surroundings. Soon after the Canadian army adopted the pixelated camo patterns, other nations like the United States did so as well.

The Failure of America’s Universal Pattern

In 2002, the United States had only two types of military camo—one was green for the woods and the other was brown for the desert. The Battle Dress Uniform (green) was developed in 1981 and used through the early 2010s, while the Desert Combat Uniform (brown), also known as “chocolate-chip camouflage,” was used by various armed forces branches from the mid-1990s to early 2010s.

In 2004, the U.S. Army set out to develop a universal camouflage pattern (based on the pixelated look) that would help protect soldiers in any environment. The U.S. spent nearly $5 billion on research and development of the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP). Unfortunately, the grayish pixelated pattern failed horribly, especially in Afghanistan, which lends itself to a more brown landscape.

After numerous complaints that the UCP splotches made soldiers more visible, the Army spent an estimated $2.9 million to design camouflage solely for Afghanistan.

In the early 2010s, the Marine Corps spent more than $300,000 to test camouflage patterns to discover what would give U.S. soldiers the best competitive edge. By 2013, the two basic U.S. camouflage patterns turned into 10. Today, the U.S. Army, Marines, and Navy all have their version of camouflage uniforms that were developed for their respective locations, terrain, and seasons.

The Future of Modern Military Camouflage

Just as military camouflage has adjusted to modern warfare tactics throughout history, now NATO wants camouflage to help the military elude hyperspectral cameras. Infrared sensors have gone through rapid development and nations are now performing very expensive research and development to discover possibilities to camouflage against thermal sensors.

The U.S. Army chose Fibrotex USA Inc. to develop the new camouflage patterns, deemed the Ultra-Light Camouflage Netting System, an all-weather concealment system providing multi-spectral protection for both troops and equipment. The uniforms are developed using light, dark, woodland, snow, desert, and urban variants. The project is a 10-year, indefinite delivery, and quantity award, valuing $480 million.

From Battlefield to Fashion

Camouflage fabric patterns have been in and out of fashion trends since their inception in military use. A soldier’s uniform portrays characteristics such as honor, courage, and allegiance to one’s nation. The fascination with camouflage patterns in fashion could be a reflection of the fact that the first designers were artists who hand-painted camouflage patterns onto military uniforms.

These artists, known as Camoufleurs, first dedicated camouflage units to create the low-visibility garb used by German, American, French, and British armies, as well as many other nations during WWI.

A brief history of camouflage in fashion:

  • 1943: Vogue featured military camouflage in its magazine
  • 1971: Vogue printed a trend collage on camo with images of girls dressed in tactical clothing and gear
  • The 1980s: Hunters and civilians alike started wearing camouflage clothing

Today, camouflage is popular in everything from clothing and apparel to accessories like car seat covers, jewelry, bags, and purses. Perhaps camouflage fashion trends stem from people’s pride and love of their country, and as a way to pay homage to our military for their service and protection.

About CalTrend

CalTrend is a custom car seat cover manufacturer, featuring a variety of seat cover styles that are 100% made in the USA. From hunter/tactical items to digital camouflage to traditional military patterns, we offer the perfect selection of Camouflage Seat Covers to fit your personalized style. 

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