A brief history on camouflage

This blog post deals with the interesting topic of camouflage patterns in relation to its original application of not being seen and about being seen indeed as statement of contemporary street fashion. Every short history on camouflage should start with an excursion into the animal kingdom. The hypothetical question wether or not camouflage works, seems obviously positively answered. Wether this is in the dazzling effect of a group of zebra’s on the African savannah, which are of course highly visible but at the same time invisible as an individual, or a Scops Owl which seems to morph into a physical part of the tree in which he is roosting. Both these, and so many more examples work very well.

Two names come up when we look at the history of camouflage and its translation from the animal kingdom to humans (military). One a British zoologist named Sir Edward Poulton who wrote the book The Colours of Animals in 1890 and Abbott Thayer an American painter. Poulton supported Darwin’s Evolution Theory and was convinced that the ability of an animal to camouflage itself was linked to it’s natural selection. Thayer popularised the concept of camouflage in animals dealing with countershading (the paler coloured belly of a hare compared to the rest of its fur enhancing a 2-dimensional effect) and disruptive coloration like the spots on the fur of a leopard to hide the outlines of its body.

Military context

Before the development of the modern rifles, roughly halfway through the 19th century, soldiers were clad in brightly coloured uniforms. Probably the best example of this are the British Red Coats, who where named like this for obvious reasons.

With rifles becoming more and more accurate over longer distances, the need for camouflage was first pioneered by Austria-Hungarian snipers who wore dull grey outfits and Scottish hunters wearing ghillie suits (suits with long strips of fabric simulating leaves and twigs). The British sharp shooters started doing this to but with more greenish toned apparel. Another mid 19th century example of modest camouflage tactics, is the use of khaki (a word derived from Urdu or Persian meaning cloth) in British troops stationed in the deserts of Northern Africa. Their bright white uniforms were dyed in a mixture of tea (what else!) and curry to give them a more sand coloured tone. Not only was the difficult task of keeping your uniform in a pristine white state solved, they became less visible too.

Despite the aforementioned examples, the bright coloured military clothing stayed in fashion up to the early 20th century. Why one may ask, when it is so clear that using camouflage seems an obvious life safer? An important reason can be found in the fact that brightly coloured - or at least similar - uniforms did what their name suspects: unify. The psychological effect on soldiers of being the same when going into battle strengthened them morally and thus physically as well. Only when the battlefield tactics (again driven by the weapons used) changed from open battles to more guerrilla warfare - and thus diminishing the group spirit - military clothing started to change dramatically. To win a war in the age of guerrilla warfare, not being seen is vital in order to stay alive.

The First World War

With the terror of World War I chocking mankind at the beginning of the 20th century, a new concept of warfare intelligence started to take shape: arial reconnaissance. Only followed somewhat later by arial bombing. This meant that not people so much as buildings and equipment needed hiding. A magnificent example of this is a French barracks painted in camouflage. The term camouflage itself is by the way derived from the French word for ‘doing ones make up for stage’.

Camouflage takes on almost Baroque proportions during naval warfare on World War I with ships being painted in so-called ‘dazzle patterns’. A theoretical - since never actually proven to work - form of ‘camouflage’ where ships were painted in black and white zig-zag and other geometrical patterns. It still looks like some artist went nuts, so very nice, but not effective at all.

Military personnel was not dressed in camouflage as we now know it during WW I. There where improvised camouflage outings and of course the utter inhuman conditions of the dirt filled trenches provided some sort of camouflage. This did not do much of course when running into the battlefield...

The Second World War

Although the military was not yet fully convinced that camouflage really worked, some of the steps taken during WW I where further explored in the inter war period and at the dawn of World War II. From the start of the war the printed camouflage cloth started to appear in full swing and with it came the distinctive differences between the various nations. This is off course an interesting conundrum since all parties involved are trying to achieve the same effect but laws of practicality force them to take different paths to the same goal. Not to be seen by your enemy but not looking to much alike either.

This results in the fascinating array of different prints we now know. Of course military clothing has had an enormous impact on the daily apparel of the modern man. Almost every other piece in our wardrobes can be traced back in some way or other to the battlefields of the 19th and 20th century. A very obvious sign of this is the current revival of camouflage patterns in all sorts of (street)fashion. Some of these outing are a bit over the top. We personally like the camo to be of original military vintage heritage, worn and full of character. Please see our instagram account for some of the variations we have on offer. Since the Second World War many different camo patterns have been used and are still being used today. All of them have their roots in the above told history.

In the remainder of this blogpost we will show some of the most interesting camo patterns and tell you something about their background. This quick-guide will help you distinguish the good, the bad and the ugly from the proper ones out there.


The mother off all the more well know camo prints must be the British brushstroke camo. It is seen as a blue print for quite a lot of camo patterns after it. The pattern was developed for the British Army by Major Denison. He came up with the idea to apply a mopping or brush-like pattern over the khaki uniforms of British paratroopers who were going to jump and operate behind enemy lines. The so-called original Denison Smocks where hand painted with often non permanent paints, resulting in them being very rare and expensive today. The British kept using this pattern roughly up to the 1960s. Brushstroke has been the inspiration for e.g. the French Lizard and Tiger patterns in which horizontal stripes are very prominent.


As with so many things warfare related, the Germans where ahead of their time when it came to the use of different camo patterns. The so-called splittertarnmuster is a four colored camp pattern based on geometrical shapes (this was also applied to German planes) sometimes covered with a ‘rain’ pattern. This pattern was developed in the early 1920s and has been put to use throughout the 20th century. This type of camo was especially widely used among Warsaw-pact countries. One of the nicest uses of splinter camo comes from Sweden where the M90 pattern has been in use since 1990.


The name flecktarn comes from the German words fleck which means spot and tarnung which measn camouflage. This is a very distinctive pattern and very much distinctively different from any other pattern. This pattern is build up out of four, five or sometimes even six different clusters of overlapping spots. This pattern was put to use in all branches of the German forces and has been varied upon quite a lot. Also there have been many countries that have adopted a similar patterns, among them Belgium, Denmark, France and even China with a special Tibettarn pattern!


Woodland is one of the most common patterns both on the streets as in the military. It is actually an enlargement from the leaf pattern as developed in 1948 by the Americans. This enlargement made sure that the different colours in this pattern were more distinctive and not visually blended into one vague color. The Dutch Army has been using Woodland camo throughout its armed forces as well.

Lizard / Tiger Stripe

The name tiger stripe typifies the group of camo’s that have been in use in South East Asia. Especially in the 1960s Vietnam era. It is a variation of the French lizard design from the 1950s. This pattern was first made by the Vietnam Marine Corps, but also the Americans used it for their jungle camo. Both patterns have obvious horizontal and diagonal tapering brown and dark green stripes over a lighter green background color. During the Vietnam War quite a few variations in this branch of camo saw the light of day, but all can be traced back to the same origin.

Digital Camo

This camo style is based upon a combination of micro- and macro-patterns most often in a pixelated look, made by a computer. The theory behind this print is based on three principles (here is where it gets a bit technical but also fascinating!) 1) double or multiple scaled patterns with a high spaced frequency component which creates a disruptive pattern both at close and long range 2) dithering: using an intermediate color where two different color area’s touch each other 3) ‘edge effect’ is a visual modification of the edge of various color areas. Amazingly enough this results in a pattern not very far from the German flecktarn from the early 1920s! Again proving how advanced the Germans where. The Digicamo was developed in the 1990s and has seen quite a few variations, among them the MARPAT print of the US Marine Corps. The effect of Digicamo is that it works at both close and long range. Test results have shown that objects in MARPAT are found 2.5 times later than objects in the traditional NATO patterns.

Of course all of the above is only a very brief birds eye view on camo and its history. If you are looking for a specific type please feel free to contact us or take a look on the fascinating website camopedia.org.


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