05.12.2016
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Hiding in plain sight

During WWI, around 1917, British military vessels were being sunk by German U-boats at an alarming rate.

In that same era, American painter Abbott Handerson Thayer was creating a lot of paintings of angels. He later became known for his influence on the development of military camouflage.

During the late 1800s, Thayer focused on disruptive patters in nature, and began experimenting with countershading. He was convinced that the military would benefit from the use of these patterns to camouflage troops and vessels. He proposed this to the military twice unsuccessfully.

A salient example of this is in a couple of photographs Thayer sent to the military showing how disruptive patterns could camouflage troops. To make his patterned clothing, Thayer covered his jacket with rags and patches and painted his face with grease in a manner similar to that of contemporary battle camouflage.

Though Thayer did not succeed, he eventually filed a patent for treating ships to make them less visible in 1902. His writing on disruptive patterns later inspired British artist Norman Wilkinson.

Wilkinson worked as a designer for the London Railway and British navy, creating art and communication materials. Wilkinson’s most notable contribution is the widely recognized razzle dazzle pattern. Razzle dazzle patterns are meant to distort the proportions and orientation of a ship, thus making it difficult to asses its exact location and trajectory

Thayer’s research and writings seemed to have inspired Wilkinson since the term “razzle dazzle” was used by Thayer to describe disruptive patterns in nature. In 1918, Wilkinson succeeded in convincing the British military to use the razzle dazzle pattern on their ships by proving that U-boats could not properly determine the exact location of a ship clad in this pattern. The margin of error for a torpedo to hit its target is 8º. What does that mean? If a U-boat determines the distance between their own vessel and a ship, they can triangulate and predict the ship’s positioning to launch a torpedo that will hit its target. By using the pattern on ships, the British navy increased the margin of error to 25º. That meant that British ships were being sunk significantly less, and much fewer casualties.

The success of the razzle dazzle pattern was responsible for saving ships and the lives of those aboard them. In the coming years the use of razzle dazzle was widespread, with passenger and cargo ships adopting the pattern to avoid U-boat attacks during WWI.


Soon razzle dazzle was so widespread that it entered the world of fashion. Between 1914 and 1920 there was an art movement called Vorticism. Vorticism sat right next to Cubism and Dadaism and is said to be responsible for appropriating Thayer’s “disruptive pattern” principles approach to create patterns for artistic and fashion purposes. One of the more prominent Vorticists was artist and fashion designer Sonia Delunay. The use of bold geometric camouflage patterns became a rather popular choice and some took it to the extreme.

By the time WWII started, the use of graphic patterns and camouflage became the part of the visual language of military uniforms and vehicles. Camouflage became a standard for military uniforms, such as that we can identify certain military conflicts by the camp patterns soldiers wear. In more recent times, patterns have become more and more technical, even though some of the more classic and fluid patterns still remain. One of the most important properties of technical patterns or pixel patterns (called ARMPAT and minecraft) is that they are designed in such a way that the eye converts the blocks into its surrounding by association. This tricks the brain to see things such as rocks, large animals (in the case of tanks), rather than the more common use of foliage.

The inherent beauty of some of these patterns has been co-opted by civilians and used in fashion as well as industrial design as much as the Vorticists did back in the early 1900s. The razzle dazzle pattern has gone through a resurrection during the past decade. We can see these patterns inspiring art direction, textiles, and set designs.

Military camouflage as a fashion statement became popular during and after the Vietnam War, and is still widely used in contemporary fashion. From celebrities wearing concealing coloration patterns to re-mixed Nordic snow camo, variations of camouflage are everywhere.

So next time you see a jacket like this OFF White one, where “concealing coloration” patterns are combined with “disruptive patterns”, think of Abbott Handerson Thayer, the grandfather of camouflage.