It's been said that the clothes make the man, and nowhere is this truer than in the military. A soldier's uniform denotes everything from allegiance and branch to title and rank. And when it comes to camouflage, it can mean the difference between life and death a point brought up by U.S. lawmakers as Congress prepared to pass a $106 billion emergency war-spending bill that will fund, among other things, some 70,000 new uniforms for troops in Afghanistan. Evidently the country's muddy, mountainous terrain clashes with the "universal camouflage pattern" designed for dusty desert cities like Basra and Baghdad.
The emergence of aerial and trench warfare during World War I gave rise to the strategy and art of camouflaged battle dress, sparking an unexpectedly fruitful collaboration among soldiers, artists and naturalists like Abbott Thayer, whose 1909 book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom became required reading for the U.S. Army's newly launched unit of camoufleurs. Now that troops had to avoid bombs dropped from the sky, mines underfoot and bullets from pretty much everywhere else, the gloriously regal (not to mention flamboyant) garb worn in an earlier era of warfare began to seem a bit outdated, if not downright dangerous.
"It is a wonderful opportunity, this game of hokus-pokus," the New York Times mused in a 1917 Op-Ed about the newfangled concept of "camouflage," borrowed from the French word camoufler, "to disguise." Just two years earlier, France had established the world's first military team dedicated to stealth attire, after a crushing defeat at the hands of German troops convinced French generals that their armed forces should forgo their stylish white gloves and pantalons rouges for a more muted look.
The new field borrowed heavily from techniques found in Cubist paintings and Renaissance trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") art, and it would eventually enlist the help of artists like Grant Wood and Jacques Villon, both of whom served as camoufleurs during wartime. When World War II broke out, applications from painters, sculptors, even ad men flooded Fort Belvoir, Va., the military's headquarters for camouflage development. "There must be something intriguing about the word 'camouflage,' " an officer told TIME in 1942 before cautioning, "There is no room for the esthetic color expert, or for any man who can't march 20 miles a day carrying a full pack."
Artists and nature lovers soon gave way to behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists who employed algorithms and "clutter metrics" the study of how the eye locates and detects objects to create increasingly complex designs. The familiar "U.S. Woodland" pattern, which has been taken up by soldiers in Ghana, Zambia, Uganda and Liberia, replaced the "tiger stripe" look of the Vietnam War, while troops during the first Gulf War donned "chocolate chip" or "cookie dough" duds nicknames outdone only by the "scrambled egg" scheme favored by Egyptian forces. (The mottled black and off-white flecks found on both are meant to mimic the gravel and stones of a desert landscape.)
In 2001, the Marine Corps unveiled its pixelated MARPAT (MARine PATtern) uniform, featuring small, square blocks of color dubbed "visual white noise" by one observer. Because its digitized composition better reflects the dappled textures and irregular edges found in nature, it has since been adopted by all branches of the military in one form or another.
Military camo went mainstream after a hunting enthusiast named Jim Crumley used a Magic Marker to draw vertical tree-trunk lines on a few pairs of tie-dyed coats and pants in the late 1970s. A decade and two mortgages later, his patented "Trebark" design had gone from being featured in a few small ads in Bowhunter magazine to appearing in nearly every major outdoors catalog in the country. When Manuel Noriega, wearing Trebark gear, finally surrended to U.S. troops, Crumley reportedly toyed with the idea of using the Panamanian general in an ad campaign with the slogan "No wonder it took so long to capture him."
A camo craze swept the country in the 1980s, with teenagers and hunters alike sporting all sorts of apparel in signature splotches of green, tan and brown. Retail experts credited America's military campaigns in Lebanon and Grenada for the trend. As a manufacturer told TIME in 1984, "I think many people wear military clothes because they feel proud of the U.S." To this day, consumers can find the familiar Woodland motif in oddly conspicuous colors neon orange, bright red, hot pink on everything from lingerie to toilet paper. Designers like Christian Dior and Nicole Miller have even created camo couture; witness the evening gown of shimmering sequins and blotchy earth tones.
Of course, camouflage isn't stricly limited to clothing. As early as World War II, military officials advocated using netting, foliage and smoke to conceal airports, oil tankers and factories from aerial detection. High-tech vinyl-adhesive photographs now available can conceal entire bridges; temporary camouflage can be painted on military tanks and just as quickly be washed off. One Dutch defense contractor is working on thin, plastic sheets that adapt and blend into a soldier's environment by using a system of light-emitting diodes and a small camera. Another contractor, AAE, has patented a type of fabric that prevents infrared radar from detecting body heat. It's calling it the "stealth poncho." It's a long way from Abbott Thayer's sketchbook.