Rick Robinson

Aug 4th 2017

Camouflage Clothing — When Concealment Becomes Style


Camouflage — the technique of eluding notice by blending into the surroundings — is something that people have utilized since the earliest times. It can be used by the hunter or the hunted. A tiger can blend in with the dappled light of a forest or jungle, and failure to notice the tiger can be deadly, while the zebra’s stripes may help the animal blend into the light and shade of tall grasses.

Even as it provides concealment, a camouflage pattern can also be dramatically aesthetic — tiger stripes being a perfect example. So it should come as no surprise that camouflage clothing, originally designed to conceal the wearer, can also make a powerful fashion statement.

More surprising, perhaps, is the potential for new materials science to take camouflage clothing to a new level, whether for concealment, a strong statement or perhaps both.

The Science and Art of Concealment

In nature (and in clothing), camouflage can take a variety of forms. Most often, it is based on relatively subtle and subdued patterns that can blend into a variety of surroundings fairly well. Present-day military camouflage clothing, with its dappled tan or green patterns, is of this type.

Other types of camouflage feature dramatic patterns that do not so much conceal as confuse. Enemies or predators can see it easily enough, but won’t be sure what they are seeing. This uncertainty, and resulting hesitation, can be equally effective as outright concealment in preventing an attack.

These types of camouflage do not change, though how they appear may depend on the light. But in nature, some types of camouflage actively change in order to blend in better with the surroundings. Chameleons provide a classic example of this sophisticated type of camouflage: Their skin can change color and pattern to match its background.

Three Types of Camouflage

For soldiers, along with hunters and some others, camouflage clothing is a purely practical choice. But fashion designers have long looked to the military as one style of inspiration they can draw upon in order to create an effect.

Thus the military camouflage look has made its way to the urban storefront — where its purpose is more to draw attention than distract it. “Dazzle” camouflage has also drawn attention as a way to, well, dazzle the viewers of an outfit.

But the third type of camouflage — adaptive camouflage that changes color or pattern in response to its surroundings, as a chameleon does — has been absent from the fashion runway, for the simple reason that fabrics capable of producing that effect were not commonplace.

But thanks to materials science, that is starting to change.

Technology Takes Aim at the Fashion Runway

As David Nield writes at Science Alert, the key to taking camouflage to a new stylistic level lies in a technology known as thermochromic pigments. These pigments change color in response to changes in temperature, which in turn can be controlled by electric currents.

Designer–researcher Laura Devendorf and her team “coated conductive threads with thermochromic pigments and explored how [they] could leverage the geometries of weaving and crochet to create unique aesthetic effects and power efficiencies.”

Current versions of these chameleon-like fabrics change color too slowly to have the desired dramatic effect. But that is what research and development is striving to change.

Other designers are exploring similar technologies. Sarah Griffiths of the Daily Mail notes that Budapest designer Judit Eszter Karpati is combining thermochromic threads with computer technology and soundtracks to create what she calls chromosonic fabric that changes color and pattern in response to music or other sound patterns.

These technologies are not emerging in isolation. They are part of a broader development in the interaction of light and materials that is also bringing the invisibility cloak into the realm of the feasible.

Invisibility itself is a form of camouflage, but the goal of fashion designers who are pursuing technologies such as thermochromic pigments is not to make the wearer invisible, even figuratively, but rather to make the wearer stand out in a crowd.

There are two related lessons to be learned from the technology frontier of fashion-conscious camouflage clothing. No concern — such as camouflage — is too practical, and no technology is too cutting edge, for human creativity to apply to the goal of making us look good.