Far from being a precise science, early military camouflage was the work of abstract artists who thought their work rather gorgeous. Now it is fiercely fought over by uniform collectors
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The Independent Culture
Camouflage, the military life-saver that has seen service from the Somme to the Bosnia conflict, must surely be the brainchild of white- coated boffins more familiar with clip-boards than easels. Look closely at those languid brush strokes, though, and their true origins become clear. Camouflage is the creation of aesthetes, not military tacticians. In fact, ever since the first purpose-designed camouflage of the First World War, hardened fighting men have gone into battle wearing patterns dreamed up by artists who considered them rather gorgeous. No wonder classic camouflage designs are collected like artworks and flaunted as fashion.

The British, French and Germans all employed artists as camouflage designers during the First World War, according to the first comprehensive history of camouflage uniforms, Brassey's Book of Camouflage, to be published this month. Its co-author, Tim Newark, relates how the German Expressionist, Franz Marc, a follower of Van Gogh best remembered for his blue horse paintings, was released from the German frontline cavalry and let loose on nine tarpaulins intended to hide artillery from spotter planes. He wrote ecstatically to his wife that he had painted them with pointilliste designs and that they represented his artistic development "from Manet to Kandinsky!" Neither Marc nor the Kandinskys survived the war.

The leader of the first military camouflage section, the fashionable Parisian portraitist Guirand de Sceuola, was always seen in white kid gloves as he supervised the work of 20,000 painters in French camouflage workshops. He won acclaim in 1914 when he, too, made elegant daubs on tarpaulin to hide artillery. Among his recruits was Jacques Villon, Cubist brother of Marcel Duchamp of urinal fame.

Picasso was moved by military camouflage. Seeing a camouflaged cannon in Paris, he exclaimed: "We created that." Camouflage artists met to discuss their latest creations in a group called Les Peintres de la Guerre au Camouflage. Britain's pioneer camouflage artist was Solomon J Solomon, who was associated with Bomberg and the Vorticists.

Camouflage for personnel was not introduced until the Second World War - the British army's adoption of khaki instead of scarlet in 1902 was a response more to hot weather than the need for concealment. Towards the end of the First World War the British marine painter Norman Wilkinson had distinguished himself by devising a "dazzle" pattern for ships, not to make them blend with sea and sky, but to disrupt their outline, confusing the enemy.

The "brushstroke" patterns of Second World War personnel camouflage show artist-designers still to the fore. Brushstrokes were standard issue in Britain, France and Thailand until the 1980s. It is modern collectors who have given patterns nicknames, not the army. There are probably 100 serious camouflage uniform collectors in the world, mostly in the US and Canada, and they pay high prices for classics such as an original airborne forces 1941 Denison brushstroke smock - whose design remained standard issue into the 80s. Major Denison should be famous, but neither the Imperial War Museum nor the National Army Museum knows which of the 12 Denisons in the Army List is the camouflage designer.

Militaria dealer Richard Hunt of Burgess Hill, Sussex, charges pounds 300 for a pre-1945 Denison smock in fine condition. In inferior condition, the price would be pounds 120-pounds 150. A bad-weather brushstroke smock in thin material adopted in 1943 by the SAS would cost pounds 80-pounds 100, the less popular pyjama- like trousers pounds 20-pounds 25. Top of the British range: Special Operations Executive (SOE) jumpsuits with helmets containing a protective rubber ring, in yellow, grey and brown - pounds 600-pounds 700.

"World War II is where the money is," he says. "British WWII camouflage is desirable because we didn't do a lot of it. But it is the German SS which is top of the price league."

Most of the biggest collection of camouflage uniforms has just been sold to museums and private collections by the Parisian Dr Jean Borsarello, who provided most of the colour plates for Mr Newark's book. When the world's number of camouflage designs topped 450 recently, he gave up. "C'est trop," he says. "There used to be just one army camouflage per country. Now there are five or six - Russia has 25!" Another reason is that ownership of Nazi memorabilia is illegal in France. A friend of his recently had his collection confiscated and was fined FF20,000 (pounds 2,500).

Among the most valuable Nazi uniforms is Dr Borsarello's Waffen-SS Liebermuster "black tear" anti infra-red pattern, for which he is asking FF12,000 (pounds 1,500). Uniforms in this tiny squared pattern were made in such small numbers, for use on the Eastern front in the war's closing weeks, that collectors have difficulty believing this one is genuine. Fakes abound: aficionados have to become experts on labels and stamps in the garments.

The fact that crack troops, such as the SS, SAS and US Marines, have usually been the first to receive camouflage uniform, for special operations, helps to explain why camouflage has become street fashion. Example: the "tigerstripe" introduced in 1959 by the elite South Vietnamese Marine Corps was adopted by American Reconnaissance and Special Forces units in Vietnam before becoming fashionable in the Sixties as swimming trunks.

Stuart Gardiner, one of 40 dealers at the Saturday morning militaria market in Camden Passage, north London, does not offer Nazi gear. Among his stock: sandy brown and green 70s South African police uniform - linen jacket pounds 40, trousers pounds 25, shirts pounds 25, cap with neck flap and bright orange interior to be turned inside out to attract helicopters if lost in the bush, pounds 25. Or a current-issue Russian paratrooper Special Forces lightweight suit with computer-generated anti infra-red pattern, : pounds 30.

I asked Versace, whose Autumn collection this year contains camouflage gear for both sexes, why camouflage was so popular. "There'll be some philosophy behind it," I was told, "but fashion isn't very logical. It's dictated by designers. And what goes around comes around." Now you know.

!'Brassey's Book of Camouflage' by Tim Newark and Quentin Newark costs pounds 25, or pounds 20 post-free to 'Independent on Sunday' readers from Brassey's, 33 John Street, London WC1N 2AT (0171-753 7792, fax 0171-753 7794); make cheques payable to Brassey's UK Ltd. Richard Hunt, 42 Janes Lane, Burgess Hill, West Sussex RH15 0QR (01444 233516). Stuart Gardiner, Camden Passage, London N1 (0973 710564).