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Last Updated: Friday, 23 March 2007, 08:20 GMT
Show whips off the camouflage net
Model of warship painted in Dazzle at the exhibition  (image: Imperial War Museum)

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

A major London exhibition on the history of military camouflage looks at how it took to the field and ended up on the catwalk.

Dress the French army as harlequins, Picasso reportedly quipped during World War I, and the diamonds will make them harder for the enemy to see.

France, perhaps wisely, declined to kit out its soldiers as Italian clowns but was otherwise happy to apply Cubism to the war effort, on the principle that a broken-up form is harder for a spotter-plane to sight.

Detail from "The 40 Camofleurs", a 1916 French cartoon on camouflage artists attributed to Drevill (photo taken by permission of Imperial War Museum)

The Section de Camouflage, staffed with minor Cubist painters and set designers, was born in 1915 and no major piece of military hardware would ever be safe again from the paint-brush.

Now London's Imperial War Museum is paying tribute to the camofleurs and their successors around the world with what it boasts to be the largest-ever such exhibition.

On display are relics of the Section, and everything from 150 original model boats showing the famous Dazzle technique developed for British ships to the latest camouflage patterns of the US Army.

Camouflage in fashion makes an entry in the form of Gaultier and Galliano dresses, while other items include a pair of combat trousers worn by Clash singer Joe Strummer and "urban camouflage" costumes from David Byrne's film True Stories.

Break it up

Back in Napoleonic times, high-visibility uniforms were the battle order of the day, as French blues and Russian greens, British reds and Austrian whites marched forth.

Camouflaged German steel helmet from World War I (image: Imperial war Museum)

"It was basically a way of identifying soldiers but it was also about the camaraderie that comes from wearing the same kit," Tim Newark, author of new book Camouflage, told the BBC News website.

Military camouflage really started in the middle of the 19th Century with the introduction of khaki, he says, but what we think of camouflage now evolved in World War I to counter the new menaces of aircraft and submarines.

Khaki, Mr Newark points out, works when you are in a particular landscape but once you move you lose the effect and that is where disruptive pattern - light and dark tones juxtaposed to break up the form of a soldier, tank or battleship at a distance - comes in.

"It's not so much about disappearing on the battlefield as helping to break up the expected, actual profile," he says.

World War I camofleurs concentrated on hardware like artillery and ships, with the British soon catching up on the French after initial reservations about the military benefits of Cubism, despised by some as "Boche art".

Snipers got custom-made suits, such as the sinister, mummer-like British coats on display here, but mass-produced infantry camouflage had to wait until advances in textile printing.

In World War II, concealment and deception techniques reached a new level. "Camouflage nets baffle the Hun," declared a British poster on show but vast nets were only part of it: at Tobruk, the British would decorate strategic buildings with fake shell-holes and rubble to make them look as if they had been bombed in air raids.

Fresh foliage, please

Another World War II innovation was fake rubber feet which secret agents landing on beaches could attach to their boots in the Far East to fool the Japanese. A cunning idea but said to be "a bit uncomfortable".

Chocolate chip camouflage jacket (image: Imperial War Museum)
The chocolate chip pattern remains in service with several armies

We asked Mr Newark about examples of camouflage techniques which looked better on paper than in practice.

"Mm, there was the idea of putting foliage on things," he says.

"The fact is that the foliage dies and turns brown and it is very clear to see a tank covered in dead foliage, so soldiers were taught in both wars not to use foliage."

Then there was the famous "chocolate chip" desert pattern used in the First Gulf War, which proved very unpopular with American troops.

"Soldiers like wearing camouflage and this didn't really look soldier-like so they dropped it and replaced it with a pattern which made them feel more like soldiers and less like a cartoon," Mr Newark says.

So where did all that chocolate chip surplus go? To the army of the Republic of Iraq and a few other militaries.

Spreading the net

Camouflage caught the French popular imagination in World War I, while Dazzle inspired futuristic ball-gowns in Britain just after the war, the exhibition reveals.

South Korean soldier applies camouflage make-up on exercises, March 2007
Just finishing my face - S Korean soldier applies camouflage paint

Modern designers have played with a concept which appeals to many as a fashion item. Gaultier's startling camouflage evening dress looks at a distance to have the texture of a rug but, up close, appears made of delicate chiffon.

"In Britain the army quite likes to see camouflage being used in fashion because at the end of the day it doesn't want to be different from the people it is fighting for and likes to be understood and appreciated by them," says Tim Newark.

"At one stage, the British Army thought of making their own street wear which they could sell and which would encourage interest in the military."

Camouflage certainly has come a long way from 1915, when the French army set up its new unit.

A greatcoat worn by one of the Section's pioneers, Eugene Corbin, is believed to be the oldest surviving example of disruptive pattern in a uniform.

Corbin, whose camouflaged versions of a kepi, jacket and cape are also on display at the museum, designed the coat after seeing three comrades killed by a German aircraft.

It is a poignant reminder of the deadly serious reason for this military revolution.

Camouflage runs at the Imperial war Museum from 23 March to18 November. Tim Newark's book Camouflage is now on sale.

Your comments:

I looked for it, but I couldn't find it.
John Richardson, Bishop's Stortford

In Crewe, you can just see the remnants of black paint on the Railway Works, designed to fool German bombers into thinking that they were rows of houses rather than a transport hub.
Megan, Cheshire UK

The US chocolate chip cammo was also unpopular as it was designed for the US deserts (which are quite different to the ones in for example the Middle East...).
James Langham, Shirebrook, Notts

Since I moved out here to live on a Pacific island I'm always fascinated by the wreckage of war that's been left behind and the way they used things to camouflage. I was told that palm trees were put in barrels and rolled out to cover airfields. But the Americans went one step further by creating suburbia on the roof of one of its aircraft factories when they were convinced the Japanese were going to bomb the West Coast.
Harvey Manning, Okinawa Japan

As an ex-British soldier I served three tours in Northern Ireland. I do think it would be good to describe the art in war, to make something so horrific look so bright. Sadly I do not expect you would ever get a soldier to wear such items on the field. The only thing you would need is a good weapon and a good supply of cover not this .
jamie fineran, uk isle of wight

Re: "Soldiers like wearing camouflage and this (chocolate chip) didn't really look soldier-like so they dropped it". It seems the SAS didn't mind driving around in pink landrovers - desert camouflage colour for their "pink panther landrover".
Johan Sanvhost, Oslo, Norway

Is this exhibition scheduled to travel to the Canberra Museum or a Sydney museum? I'm a pom but the Diggers have such a proud past that this exhibition would be a storm. Mike
Mike Phillips, Sydney, Australia

The curator describes the camouflage exhibition


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