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War Museum to stage camouflage expo

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London's Imperial War Museum (IWM) opens a major exhibition titled "Camouflage" today, which will run until November.

According to curators, this will be "the first major exhibition to explore the story of the development of military camouflage and its adoption into popular culture from the First World War to the present day".

Military-history purists might suggest that the First World War is a bit of a late start for this topic. The British army was using basic camouflage as early as the 18th century, when it introduced green uniforms for its rifle skirmisher regiments. Later on, in the Boer War, the whole army moved to khaki kit so as to be less conspicuous.

But the IWM planners evidently want to appeal to a wider public than just history nerds. The exhibition makes every effort to play up military camouflage's connections with the artistic and fashionable worlds.

The expo website is full of references to the Cubist artists behind the French camouflage efforts of World War One, Vorticist dazzle-camo used by the Royal Navy to confuse Boche U-boat skippers, and so on. What with all the poetry that was also going on at the time, apparently World War One was quite culturally uplifting. Assuming you managed to avoid getting killed, crippled, or sent insane (and then possibly accused of cowardice and shot).

World War Two, in addition to being an even bigger global slaughterhouse, was another big opportunity for arty types. More craftily, psychological colour schemes were developed by "a large community of creative people including the architect Hugh Casson, advertising designer Ashley Havinden and Surrealist painter Roland Penrose".

Since then, according to the expo organisers, camouflage has infiltrated popular culture. IWM curators have trawled the showbiz costumiers and the catwalks. Names listed in the press materials include The Clash, Madonna, Gaultier, Galliano and Andy Warhol. And "street style by Maharishi", whatever that is.

There's also some stuff on actual military gear in more recent wars, where different uniforms have often been more trendy than others within various armed forces. Online camouflage aficionados – should any exist – can download the tiger-stripe favoured by the bad-boy American elites of the Vietnam War, distinguishing themselves from olive-drab clad draftee grunts.

Visitors might also get a chance to see the various dashing new desert garments sometimes issued to the British forces in more recent times. It was noticeable at the time of the Iraq invasion that press officers on TV at Coalition HQ in Qatar always had this gear, but that front-line troops on the Kuwaiti border were often still wearing green-and-brown togs more suitable for old Blighty. But it was probably ever thus.

In fact, classical camouflage could be said to have fallen from military favour to some degree. The ultimate leaders of fashion in the armed services are always the elite special forces. In the field nowadays, they seem to prefer casual outdoorsy civvies or local garb as often as not. The nearest thing to uniform that the spec-ops fashionistas will willingly be seen in is SWAT-type coveralls and tac-vests.

Could be that the IWM are behind the times, and black is – yet again – the new black. ®

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