The natural world has always relied on deception to protect itself. From Greek philosopher Aristotle’s ponderings on the changing colours of sea creatures, to Charles Darwin ruminating on the principles of natural selection, camouflage has intrigued and bewildered for centuries.

'The Vanishing Art of Camouflage' at the University of Westminster’s Harrow campus

‘The Vanishing Art of Camouflage’ at the University of Westminster’s Harrow campus

The art of camouflage on fabric has greatly influenced the fashioning of military clothing since the mid-nineteenth century. The etymology is French and Italian, stemming from disguise, when soldiers required clothing that disguised their presence, or deceived the eye of the enemy. Artists called camoufleurs were commissioned by the French in World War 1 to design patterns based on nature that helped to literally hide soldiers, deceiving the enemy eye to aide advancement and defend front lines.

'The Vanishing Art of Camouflage' at the University of Westminster’s Harrow campus

‘The Vanishing Art of Camouflage’ at the University of Westminster’s Harrow campus

From the 1950s onwards, military deadstock and used garments, often featuring some form of camouflage fabric, flooded the second-hand markets and specialist textiles dealers – think of the Mods in their M51 parkas, and the ‘60s frogging and scarlet coats worn by the hippies. It has greatly influenced streetwear since then.

‘The Vanishing Art of Camouflage’, a small exhibition at the University of Westminster’s Harrow campus (outside of London), addresses the beguiling, deceitful craft of fashioning the hidden. Using a recently-formed and rapidly growing menswear archive that the University is developing, the display effectively captures camouflage design from utilitarian military garments through to streetwear.

The curators have also borrowed pieces from designers like Jeremy Scott and Ashish to enhance the narrative of deception, and how patterns on materials have been used to literally fool the eye.

Some of the most useful acquisitions and loans are those of menswear company Stone Island. The exhibition highlights good examples of the interrogation and manipulation of materials that the company has become known for: one garment has been dyed, bleached, dyed again and hand-painted to create a tortoise-shell effect of black, with burnt orange hues; another shimmers with camouflage of light-reflecting silver. These help chart the rise of military-inspired streetwear, and illustrate themes of crypsis (hard to see), mimesis (disguise) and motion dazzle.

The exhibition is done on a shoe-string (what exhibition isn’t?!). The interesting examples of art featuring camouflage (including Andy Warhol’s self-portrait of 1986 patterned with red, pink and blue) are printed on foam board. The labels are small, too low (some rest on the floor) and hidden (perhaps this is about the exhibition theme being taken to the extremes). There is little chance for background research to contextualise the stories (with only two information panels), and some generalisations catch in the back of the throat:

‘One could argue that menswear from the beginning of the twentieth century has been the history of camouflage, both visually and metaphorically. Unlike womenswear with its emphasis on colour, embellishment, and decoration, menswear is obsessed by deception and secrecy. Hidden details, hidden functions and hidden codes…. Menswear has always been harder to decipher.’

It is problematic to generalise that only menswear is obsessed with deception. Clothes that are coded, secretive, deceptive have existed for men and for women and those not following the gender binary for as long as fashion history has been interrogated.

It is difficult to get the whole story across but this should only encourage future researchers and curators to enlarge on this fascinating and creative subject.

What is effective about this exhibition is that menswear is focused on. That the worlds of design and fashion have drawn on utilitarian and functional fabrics designed to save lives. That many devastating political, economic and social imperatives have driven, and continue to drive, the need for these patterned fabrics. That camouflage is used to pattern toilet paper, condoms, and trainers. And fabrics, that are hard-to-see and designed to disguise the wearer in certain natural (and increasingly un-natural) environments, can be incredibly beautiful and evocative.

The exhibition also highlights what is promising to be a very useful resource, a collection of contemporary menswear for University of Westminster students, researchers and the industry to mine.

The exhibition is on until 20 November 2016 at Westminster University’s Harrow site:

Ben Whyman