I have always had a love affair with camouflage. It combines an enduring childhood fascination for all things military with an appreciation for design and purposeful things that I’ve acquired as an adult. This week, I joined forces with MR PORTER to explore the history of camouflage and tour some of my favourite London locations in search of hidden and disruptive spaces.
Starting out at the Town Hall Hotel I crossed Bethnal Green and passed through Shoreditch to arrive at the Barbican and admire its vast architectural sprawl, the stark and brutalist appearance of which belies the considered and intricate design of its interior structures. An archipelago of concrete towers connected by bridges and platforms, the overall result is a pattern of interwoven yet clashing shapes and shadows, shielded by an exterior fortress. With its natural greenery and imposing shifting shadows, it is never the same, it is constantly evolving. It is, by its nature, disruptive.
Disruption as an art form has its roots firmly sunk into the well trodden field of battle. Camouflage is a distruptor by design; the interlocking and seemingly random patterns calculated by mathematicians and artists to disguise the outlines of personnel and equipment for the purposes of subterfuge and security.
Early disruptive patterns were originally tested by the artists of the French camouflage corps during the First World War and then adopted successfully by all sides in the second. Through an evolving collection of patterns and colours inspired by recurring shapes found in nature, camouflage utilises shape and shadow to counter the human understanding and perception of outlines and depth. Its this calculated confusion, the deliberate disruption achieved by the careful design and artistic skill, that makes this iconic pattern more than just another cog in the war machine. This is design with purpose and importance - making things disappear is an art form that is often overlooked and rarely understood.
Every camoflage has a story to tell, a different design for a different environment and time. Camouflage is the tell-tale that easily dates photographs and films of soldiers and civilians alike. In the 1960s and 70s, Vietnam War protestors ironically adorned M65 Field jackets with peace flowers and badges, drawing sharp contrast to the mud and the blood 6000 miles away in the jungles and deltas of Indochina. And now, in the urban jungles of this new century camouflage has countered itself. It has become a bold statement - the uniform of subcultures and those wishing to stand out.
From American Tiger Stripe to Swedish M90, camouflage is as adaptable as it is disruptive. No longer the exclusive uniform of the military, reserved only for high-speed-low-drag operators, military camouflage has transcended the battle lines and made its way onto the backs of dedicated deer hunters, irony-loving protestors and, without doubt, men of style.
"I very well remember at the beginning of the war being with Picasso on the boulevard Raspail when the first camouflaged truck passed. It was at night, we had heard of camouflage but we had not seen it and Picasso amazed looked at it and then cried out, yes it is we who made it, that is cubism."
— Gertrude Stein in From Picasso (1938)
If camouflage is an art, then its masterpiece is surely the leaf pattern. The universally recognised lowland pattern originally issued to US Special Forces in the late 1960s and later developed into the classic M81 woodland pattern is the archetypal disruptive pattern. Freemans Sporting Club recently revived the legendary woodland pattern to feature in select lines from their latest collection of outerwear.
Thanks to MR PORTER’s curated collection of jackets, I was able to rekindle my love for camouflage by picking up this waxed cotton work jacket. It's lightweight and hardwearing and the four flat front pockets are ideal for stowing mission critical kit while maintaining a low profile. Hand tailored in New York City by the artisans at Freemans Sporting Club, it's built to last. Like all FSC's garments it'll only improve with time, developing its own hard-won patina from long range patrols to discover more disruptive locations.