History of Camouflage

Function: noun
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.