Summer 2005

Design as a matter of life and death

Disprutive Pattern Material: An Encyclopedia of Camouflage

By Hardy Blechman. Firefly Books
USD 125 hardcover

When I was at Valley Forge Military Academy during the mid-1960s my second favourite subject (after close arms combat) was our one and only art class devoted to camouflage. Cadets were required to devise the most unique yet functional diversionary patterns, wear them on clothes and face while on manoeuvres, and then try to elude capture (or worse). We were told that cami was the most indispensable tactical tool in the military arsenal because the right design could mean the difference between life and death. Back then, of course, cami was exclusively a military or paramilitary product. Today it is among the hottest high and low fashion conceits designed for the hip, the near hip and the nerdy.

The T-shirt, Spam, and aviator glasses were also originally military inventions that were long ago transformed into mass-market commodities even before the introduction of Old Navy stores military surplus provided civilians with inexpensive, durable ready-to-wear clothing. Unlike these functional expropriations, however, civilian cami style is essentially decorative, and ostensibly void of symbolic or other implications.

Camouflage is neither gender-specific nor ethnically or racially stereotypical. The use of cami on everything from automobiles to furniture to leisurewear to toys suggests that connoisseurs need not be gung-ho militarists to appreciate military ingenuity or taste. Nonetheless, seeing camouflage cannot but consciously trigger unsettling images and feelings – guerilla warfare, forced occupation, even ethnic cleansing come to mind. It is hard for me to reconcile something so purposefully martial as entirely benign.

But as Hardy Blechman (a fashion designer named British Streetwear Designer of the Year 2000) reveals in his impressive omnibus survey Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopedia of Camouflage, cami’s allure is as much about aesthetics as it is deception, and more about eroticism than violence. ‘As soon as I saw camouflage clothing, I was inexplicably drawn to it,’ writes Blechman, who founded his own Maharishi clothing line with a design for combat trousers he called Snopants using recycled military fabrics. Soon after he introduced camouflage patterns on bags and other garments, and commercial cami became the ‘new denim’. This expansive, illuminating and at times entertaining book features more than 5000 images on over 700 pages, the most comprehensive study of origins and applications ever produced.

Cami is about concealment, but Blechman’s obsessively (and I presume lovingly) exhaustive book overtly examines every variation on this theme. He has collected known and rare art and design, condom packs, advertisements, David Byrne’s famous ‘Wood Suit’ from his film True Stories, hip-hop CD labels, an array of streetwear labels with cami motifs, and toys and video game interfaces galore. There is so much surprising material, it is difficult to believe a book of this kind was never done before, or that an exhibition has never been mounted. Moreover, a schizoid air permeates these pages given the contradictory roles camouflage plays in the culture.

On one particularly jarring spread we see an old Milton Bradley card game called Camouflage, based on an obscure 1961 television show that I used to watch, jarringly juxtaposed on the same page as the famous US military’s Iraqi Most Wanted deck of cards featuring Iraqi leaders on one side and camouflage pattern on the other. Cami is presented as both functional and trivial, and unquestionably ubiquitous.

For those who cannot afford the hefty cover price, or want a quieter informative read, try Roy R. Behrens’ more scholarly history of camouflage False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (Bobolink Books, 2002). If you want a definitive visual tome there is no concealing that this is the one.