The Devil Wears Camo

Or does he? Cultural confusion over a military motif

| Utne Reader March / April 2007


Here we are, ankle-deep in the hellpit of Iraq, hemorrhaging blood and treasure, and back on the home front, everything's coming up camo. Who said irony is dead? Support for the Iraq war is in the toilet, yet we're dressing as if we're in the Army now. And we're doing it without a detectable whiff of antiwar irony.

Camouflage has established itself as a look for all seasons, like blue jeans. For the off-the-rack masses, Target stocks Mossimo Mission Cargo Pants in camo; for aspirational consumers, Michael Kors rolled out a slinky, strapless camo dress in his spring/summer 2006 show. Even the Teletubbies and Arthur demographics are caught in marketers' crosshairs: For toddlers, there's MamaBebe.com's camo onesie, with 'Major Mess' embroidered on the front; for older kids, there's Target's Night Vision Bedding Collection, with its glow-in-the-dark camo comforter and cuddly pillow in the shape of a tank, which purrs mechanically when it's hugged.

I'm a brow-furrowing lefty intellectual, so maybe I had an irony-ectomy at birth, but can anyone tell me: Why in the name of God are American consumers parading around in military drag at a moment when most of us think U.S. troops should get the hell outta Baghdad before the insurgents hand us our heads, on video?

The short answer is that camo is by now a primary color in any designer's palette of cultural references. Hippies used it to give the military-industrial complex the one-finger salute; punks adopted it as street-fighting gear; activist rappers like Public Enemy wore it as the battle flag of black radicalism. Historically, the subcultural use of camo has been 'a way of coopting the sartorial codes of the military,' says Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 'In the '60s and '70s, it was a critique of the political system, tinged with a heavy element of irony.'



Since the '90s, when, according to Bolton, camo entered mass-market consciousness, designers have stripped the pattern of its antiwar and antigovernment politics. Red Dot's Girlie Camo is composed of mudflap babe silhouettes; Sun + Sand's camo substitutes hearts, doves, and Buddhas for the usual woodland foliage. Soon, what Bolton calls the 'aestheticization of what was originally a potent signifier of political turmoil' will be complete. Camo: the paisley of the Iraq war era.

But isn't there a moment when the horrors of war stand in such ironic relief to a home-front fad that even the most airheadedly apolitical fashionista should experience a sharp pain in the conscience?