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Brilliant Disguise: The History of Camouflage

Posted by Man Crates on


To be invisible. It’s a wish many have had, whether wanting to sneak in or hide out or just play tricks on unsuspecting friends. Invisible is mysterious, it’s powerful, it’s very James Bond and, even better, Bond villain. It’s what Carl Weathers wishes he was when the Predator was taking aim at him. But being in plain sight while remaining hidden isn’t just for movie villains and action heroes. It’s also the driving force behind camouflage patterns and clothing. Read on for the history of camouflage, the art of being seen yet unseen. Carl sure wishes he had.

Survive and thrive.

The obvious place to start with any history of camouflage is in nature. Critters of all kinds have long kept out of trouble by concealing themselves from predators, some of them being champion hide-and-go-seekers. Also known as cryptic coloration, animals and insects use camouflage to blend in with surroundings and mask their identity and location. Camouflage incorporates many factors, including whether the organism is furry, feathery or flaky and the behavior of both prey and predator. Environmental factors also come into play, with some species relying on mimicry, background matching or a combination of both: Behold the walking leaf insect, an excellent, if not bizarre, example of this. Some animals prefer to highlight their more dangerous characteristics rather than hiding, like brightly colored venomous serpents—yes, that snake is poison. And yes, it’s all about surviving.

Being stealth is the bomb(er).
So when did man finally get wise to the wonders of camouflage? And how did it get into wardrobe rotation? The increase in trench and aerial warfare in WWI signaled a greater need to blend into the background. While some armies created drab-colored uniforms to help them blend in, modern camouflage, like so many other fashion trends, made its debut in France. In 1915, after a bad defeat at the hands of the Germans, the French army decided to drop their bright white gloves and red pantaloons for something less conspicuous and established a team to help create stealthier uniforms. Many armies continued to wear bright garb, but eventually it became obvious that stealth was essential for success.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

The use of camouflage wasn’t limited to clothing. It was also adapted for use on military equipment, including aircraft, tankers, factories and even airports. And as technology and surveillance techniques got more sophisticated, relying less and less on unaided vision, improved camouflage product was necessary. Modern techniques include textiles that account for visible light as well as near infrared for concealment from night vision devices; vinyl adhesive photographs can conceal structures; scent, heat, sound and magnetism can be used to target weapons; and someone has even come up with a “stealth poncho” that conceals body heat, raising the cool-quotient for scientists to very high.

Camouflage was first created with the help of artists who would borrow from art techniques, like trompe l’oeil, meaning “to fool the eye.” Naturalists and scientists also got into the mix, and now creators of digital camouflage are trying to master trickery.

The military obviously benefits from innovative camouflage, but so do hunters and cool kids around the world who love to wear camo pants. Camouflage patterns have changed and developed over the years, reflecting the different needs of their wearers and, of course, the environment. Let’s talk a stroll down camouflage memory lane, shall we?

  • The Italians were the first to mass-produce camouflage in 1929. Their mimetico camouflage pattern combined large flowing shades of brown and a gray/green. Bellisimo!
  • The first large-scale American use of camouflage came in 1942 with the order of 150,000 uniforms in the frogskin pattern. Drawn by a horticulturalist, it used shades of green and brown on one side for a jungle look and a three-color tan version on the other side.
  • Flecktarn is more than just a funny word. It’s also a camo pattern that came out of Germany in the 1970s that uses splotches and dots to soften the edges between differing colors and to eliminate artificial looking shapes.
  • The U.S. Woodland pattern developed in 1981 used larger splotches to prevent blurring into one color when seen from a distance—the patterns are meant to blend into the background, not into each other.
  • The U.S.-developed and deliciously named "chocolate chip" or "cookie dough" pattern is a tan and brown pattern that features rock-like black clusters.
  • Speaking of food, the scrambled egg pattern has mottled black and off-white flecks designed to mimic the gravel of a desert landscape.
  • Digital Camouflage, originally developed by the Canadian military, replaced swirls with a pixilated design, which created “visual noise” that would not stand out to the eye of the enemy. The U.S. adopted a similar pattern with small blocks of color to better reflect the irregular textures and edges found in nature, which has since been put to use by all branches of the military in some form.
  • Multicam uses splotches of contrasting colors—pink, tan, brown, green, sand—to confuse the eye.
  • The very interesting A-TACS imitates shadows and foliage. Shadows and foliage! Its digital pattern doesn’t look solid when viewed close up.
  • The Ghillie Suit took concealment to a new level, allowing soldiers to attach found items to help blend into the background.

The future of camouflage patterns is thought to be in chameleon cloaking, with uniforms made of SmartCamo that can change color and shape depending on the surroundings. Really cool. But also really expensive, so it probably won’t be available in the local shop. Luckily the Outdoor Survival Crate, one of the best outdoor gifts for men, has everything you need to keep you safe while communing with nature.

Survival of the invisible-est
The advantages of not being seen are numerous (something Monty Python knows well), particularly when it comes to surviving. Invisibility cloaks aside, there are still plenty of ways to be prepared in the great outdoors. The Hunting Crate is a good place to start and finish, even if you end up only fighting the elements.