Columns

Civilian Camo

George Fetherling

How did camouflage spread to the private sector, and what does it mean?

Here’s how all this began. There’s a shop in my neighbourhood near English Bay in Vancouver that sells swimwear all year round, though more of it in the summer than in the cold, wet months, when First Beach is deserted except for treasure hunters with metal detectors, dogs retrieving Frisbees and individuals who look so disconsolate that I fear they may be contemplating suicide. When passing by this shop in early spring I was surprised to see a window display of bikinis made to look like military camouflage, in the familiar green-and-brown woodland pattern.

In these martial times, our eyes have become accustomed to the look. But really now, camo bikinis? Precisely what are these people supposed to be camouflaging? The answer is, of course, nothing. They are using reverse camouflage, intending to flaunt rather than conceal—except in the sense that they become invisible in a crowd in which everyone else is wearing camo too.

Over the next little while I made note of other camo clothing and accessories I saw on the streets or in ads: tees, men’s and women’s underwear, hoodies, track pants, yoga outfits, tank tops, shirts, blouses, ponchos, socks, leg warmers, neckties, scarves, handkerchiefs, vests, belts, braces, toques, skirts, leotards, dresses, rain gear, slacks, all manner of coats and jackets, watchbands, backpacks, runners, umbrellas, gloves, soft briefcases—and a full line of camo for dogs: snoods, collars, leashes and the like. You wouldn’t want your dog to be too conspicuous in the jungle when Charlie’s on the prowl.

When I was growing up in the late fifties and early sixties, my friends and I often wore military surplus because it was well made and inexpensive. Tons of the stuff was on the market, and the less prosperous one’s parents, the more logic they saw in clothing that never wore out.

We didn’t sport entire ensembles, mind you, but a shirt here, a winter coat there. Many of these items were not patterned camo but what was then called “olive drab,” or khaki. This was the army field uniform of the day, and it was handed down to us in several different shades, from tan, left over from the North African campaign, to the standard dark green of the European and Pacific theatres.

Today the field uniform is camo. It is worn, routinely but a trifle incongruously, by troops in urban areas conspicuously lacking in vegetation and by our chief of defence staff and American generals at their respective press conferences in Ottawa and Washington. It is meant to convey a state of constant readiness in fighting the open-ended war on terror. Perhaps the current thinking is that the plain green uniform with creases in the trousers is so yesterday, so suggestive of yesterday’s boogeymen—the communists. By what means, I want to know, did the spread of camo to the private sector come about, and, more important, what does it mean?

By the late 196s, military surplus clothing was again a drug on the market, the combined result of the Vietnam War, the reorganization of Canada’s forces, the heyday of NATO, the zenith of UN peacekeeping and the beginning of what’s now seen as globalization. And again the surplus was cheap. I sometimes shopped at Hercules, the four-storey surplus store on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto (the site is now a four-storey sex shop). There were always good deals there in the cast-offs of various armies: one could mix and match. Being rather long of limb (and these days of tooth as well), I wore a West German shirt, so indicated by the shoulder flashes, with some very tall South African soldier’s old trousers. The logic was more apparent at the time than it is now, but in those days young men wore army surplus shirts as a kind of jacket or cardigan, over a cloth shirt or tee, to show their opposition to U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. So my mismatched outfit was anything but gauche, even though South Africa was anathema to us because of apartheid.

It was in this strange period that camo specifically meant to suggest various kinds of vegetation came onto the market. The United States, which at one stage had half a million troops in Vietnam, was producing—clearly, overproducing—uniforms in the jungle pattern, which got gobbled up by socially conscious and cash-poor bohemians but not by others. Even in the 198s, anyone walking about in camo was simply assumed to be a member or past member of the military, especially by the older generation of immigrants. No one would make that assumption today, when camo has taken the civilian world by storm. For several months in 27 it was even the subject of a major museum exhibition in London that drew unexpectedly large civilian crowds.

The defence department in Ottawa was soundly criticized for sending the first Canadian troops to fight in Afghanistan wearing camo that was designed for boreal forests rather than for that brown, dry-as-dust nation with seemingly uninhabitable mountains. In the end, the error, the result of a supply-chain problem, appeared not to matter much, even though the essence of camouflage, whether of people, positions or vehicles, still seems to be how well it approximates the local landscape. Still, the new generation of U.S. Army camos, which went into use earlier this year, were “redesigned digitally to work in a range of urban and rural environments,” the New York Times reports.

The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka understand camo symbolism well. At a distance their clothes look like the usual jungle-pattern camos. At closer range, however, you can see that the fabric doesn’t mimic the palette of the vegetation directly, but indirectly by using tiger stripes. This shows a refreshing understanding of the natural world. What works so well for the actual four-legged tigers found there is shown to work for the bipeds who have adopted their name and, by doing so, increased the value of their brand. For people with colour blindness, camouflage loses its quality of stealth. In a recent issue of Queen’s Quarterly, a writer so afflicted reports that to him, “troops in the camouflage uniforms that have become fashionable are hilarious—they might as well be wearing the scarlet coats of Wellington’s day.”

Esquire, GQ or Vanity Fair once ran a photograph of the famous war correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave, who is now the CEO of United Press International, modelling camos designed to be worn in the summers in what was then Rhodesia. Behind him, through the open door to his closet, readers could see a long row of his various outfits for other seasons, terrains and localities. The point was that a well-dressed globe-girdling reporter must fit in with the troops who in turn are trying their best to blend with their hostile surroundings. I emailed him to ask if my recollection of this image was correct. He replied that he couldn’t recall the picture. “I covered seventeen wars in my thirty years with Newsweek,” he said, “and two others since leaving Newsweek in 198—the Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan, including Tora Bora. As I recall, I collected the fatigues of fourteen countries, but trashed them when I left Europe to settle in [Washington] D.C. to write books, before I took over the Washington Times in 1985.”

The influence of the military on civilian clothing is a long one. So great was the impact of the First World War in particular that its fashion legacy is still with us. Trench coats are called by that name because they were designed for the mud of the Western Front, and manufacturers still refer to those small metal circles attached to the front by cloth loops as “grenade rings.”

During the Great War and in the period immediately afterwards, wrist watches were known as “tank watches” and were also, strangely, thought to be effeminate. Shortly before his death in 1926, Rudolph Valentino successfully sued the Chicago Tribune for libel and defamation for suggesting that he was a sexual deviant, as gay men were then known, for wearing one. After that, the pocket watch was doomed as tank watches lost their stigma and became fully accepted, partly because the great male sex symbol of silent films had taken a stand.

When Michael Ondaatje was writing In the Skin of a Lion, which was published in 1987, he used camouflage in reference to the more distant military past. When his elder brother Christopher read the manuscript, he pointed out that the word is not in fact one of the many French military terms, such as matériel, reconnoître and bivouac, that survive from Napoleonic times. It comes from the Great War—from 1917, the Oxford English Dictionary believes—though plain khaki uniforms had been introduced by the British earlier, during the Boer War.

The exact etymology, however, is “dubious” in the OED’s view. The French painter Georges Braque (1882–1963) said that camo dated to the start of World War I. In his book The Artist in His Studio, the American artist Alexander Liberman records him as saying: “I was very happy when, in 1914, I realized that the [French] Army had used the principles of my cubist paintings for camouflage. ‘Cubism and camouflage,’ I once said to someone. He answered that it was all a coincidence. ‘No, no,’ I said, ‘it is you who are wrong. Before cubism we had impressionism, and the Army had pale blue uniforms, horizon blue: atmospheric camouflage’.”

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George Fetherling

George Fetherling is the author of The Sylvia Hotel Poems, Walt Whitman’s Secret and many other works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. He lives in Vancouver.

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