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Material Matters: A Brief History Of Camo

Air Max 90 'Duck Camo'

Camouflage has undergone some strange transitions over the last century. With cues from nature, camo was originally designed to conceal and protect in the changing world of modern warfare. Before too long it was serious business – different designs were developed for various landscapes, popular culture had its own interpretations and eventually it moved from deceptive pattern to street staple and a go-to for sneaker brands, with the help of a few big names.

Nature has been camouflaging since way back – concealment and deception give predators the edge when sneaking up on unsuspecting prey, while the prey itself can use the same techniques to avoid getting eaten. As early hunters, humans knew how important it was to go unnoticed, and as soon as they started to fight between themselves the same mentality was useful. Military top brass have always taken concealment into consideration, to the point where it’s even resulted in the rise and fall of civilisations – the story of the Trojan Horse, for example. Some early ships were painted blue to blend into the ocean, while Sun Tzu made mention of deception techniques in The Art of War. However, modern military camouflage really came about as a response to a new form of warfare. When the First World War kicked into gear, nobody wanted to be marching into battle wearing a bright red coat, acting as a target for the guy pointing the machine gun.

Early riflemen were dressed in drab tones, such as the classic ‘rifle green’ as far back as the Napoleonic Wars but the introduction of both artillery and aerial warfare in the early days of WWI called for something more effective. Any flat colour has a tendency to stand out against the diverse, dappled effects of nature. First-gen military issue vulcanised canvas sneakers were more often undyed to save money, seeing as they weren’t to be worn in battle they didn’t need any camo just yet. In France, the evolution of modern art movements, such as cubism and impressionism, were changing the way artists looked at the world with new colour theory and abstraction. France’s camoufleurs made up the first military unit dedicated to designing disruptive patterns in 1915, each member plucked from Parisian art schools. Camouflage patterns were hand painted directly onto equipment or onto canvas coverings. They worked to obscure shapes, abstract shadows and blend into surrounding terrain – the rest of the world quickly caught on.

In the approach of the Second World War, militaries quickly began to look at improving camouflage, training individual troops and even outfitting paratroopers and snipers in patterned uniforms. New printing technology allowed patterned fabrics to be produced en mass, soon each military power had developed their own distinct patterns, variously suited to landscapes like jungles, deserts and snow.

During both the First and Second World Wars camouflage styled patterns were noticed by fashion and popular culture. Dazzle patterns, angular black and white patterns used to obscure ships from submarines, quickly became the focus of well-to-do fashionistas, thanks to their quirky geometric shapes (you may remember the Nike SB Dazzle pack from 2014). In the 40s, Vogue even ran an article to educate readers on proper military camouflage. Though artists were the ones creating the camouflage in the early days, for the most part they kept it out of their work until the 60s. The pop art movement was quick to subvert the patterns in brightly coloured interpretations, with many notable works including Alain Jacquet’s camouflage series and later Andy Warhol’s camouflage series of paintings in the mid 80s changed the way a lot of fashion designers considered the patterns.

The acid house and techno movements springing up adopted the prints, but of course, it was the burgeoning street wear scene that adopted camo patterns in the most dedicated sense. Rappers like Public Enemy stirred up a new sense of unrest within youth culture and in ‘88 the group wore a black and white woodland pattern when promoting their album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back. The restless kids took up arms, emulating the new wave of dissent both in mind and dress. Brands like BAPE, Stussy, Stone Island and Maharishi began to create their own camo patterns – similar to Burberry’s ‘nova check’ they quickly became iconic to the brands.

It’s only natural that around the same time sneaker brands would begin toying with various camo patterns – to the point where nowadays you can find every imaginable camo somewhere on a shoe. BAPE colabs are still recognisable by the pattern, while Supreme introduced digi-camo to their colab with Vans and Comme Des Garcons. The Nike SB Dunk ‘Hunter’ used a Realtree camo in a surprisingly tasteful way, even the high-end brands like Valentino have given it a go. There are so many distinctive patterns that in a globally collaborative industry, many localised retailers have adopted their regional print in a patriotic manner, like the recent Sneakersnstuff ‘Swedish Camo’ collection with PUMA. It doesn’t just have to be printed either, ASICS and adidas have both used jacquard weaving techniques to create a textural effect base around camo patterns. NikeID recently added a bunch of customisable camo options, which would lead us to believe the camo sneaker thing is as strong as ever – no complaints from us.

These days camouflage patterns are everywhere – whether or not you can see them. Militaries continue to develop crazier ways of concealing, with infrared camouflage and computer designed patterns – but it’s amazing to think that it’s come full circle and now we’re wearing it to be seen and to be scene.

Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Dye and Colour, Ripstop Fabric and EVA Foam.

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