Just in time for the Fourth of July, the United States military is getting a new look.
To be specific, the Army is getting a redesigned combat uniform, with tweaked detailing and accessories, which entered select Military Clothing Sales stores Wednesday, and will gradually be absorbed into soldiers’ existing wardrobes. While some of the changes are subtle: the mandarin collar is replaced by a fold down version; the sleeve sports two pen channels, rather than three; combat boots come in what the Army calls “coyote brown” (very J. Crew) — one change is broadly significant: the print.
Instead of the Universal Camouflage Pattern and the Multicam design (also known as the Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern), the new Army Combat Uniform features a print the Army has labeled the Operational Camouflage Pattern.
The Universal Camouflage Pattern, with its green and tan pixelated splotches, debuted in 2004 and turned out to be less effective than expected and largely unpopular. (In standard military speak, William Layer, an Army spokesman, put it this way: “Soldier feedback revealed dissatisfaction.”) The Multicam design was created by a private company, Crye Precision, and licensed for use in Afghanistan in 2010.
The new print looks like a combination of the Universal Camouflage Pattern and the Multicam, complete with blobs, rather than pixel shapes, and darker colors.
Why should this matter to those who are not themselves part of the army, or closely connected to the army, or whose camouflage of choice might be denim, or a navy single-breasted suit, or a sleeveless shift dress?
Well, partly because the process of researching the new camo took four years, had its own name (the Camouflage Improvement Effort), and was the most comprehensive camo study to date. And partly because the result is what is supposed to be the safest, most effective camouflage made.
But mostly because of the trickle-down effect — speaking in fashion and not economic terms, of course.
While the terminology, once used to describe the relationship between the runway and the mass market, has fallen out of, well, fashion (the street trickles up to the catwalk as much as vice versa), when it comes to the parallels between military and civilian style, it is practically axiomatic.
What is fashion, after all, but uniforms abstracted and diversified for a multitude of armies, both corporate and communal?
No wonder the building blocks of military style, from the wool greatcoat to cargo pants, have been absorbed into designers’ vernacular. The influence is especially relevant today, as unisex or gender-free dressing — an approach embodied by the Army uniform — is sweeping collections from Gucci to Public School.
As a result, what happens in Natick labs — the United States Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, the organization responsible for developing and testing all equipment, except weaponry and communications — has an outsize effect on what happens in fashion week.
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Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to camouflage, which, perhaps more than specific items or silhouettes, has captured the fashion imagination. After all, there is no better metaphor for the clothes we all put on every day, conceived and chosen to help us blend in to whatever personality or environment we choose.
Every few seasons, it seems, camouflage takes a turn on the catwalk. It happened during the spring and summer 2013 men’s wear shows, on runways from Dries Van Noten to Comme des Garçons. And the Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli created a niche camouflage collection that has become a brand staple. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson modeled the style in Paris last March, when they announced plans for the film “Zoolander 2.”
Meanwhile, Burberry included a suede camouflage bucket bag and over-the-knee suede boots in its autumn/winter 2015 women’s wear collection, coming to stores later this summer. Not long afterward, Rihanna appeared in Christopher Kane camouflage sweats and a contrasting camouflage Puma x Bathing Ape puffa coat. Most recently, during the spring/summer 2016 Paris men’s wear shows, camouflage showed up at Dior Homme (argyle camo!), Neil Barrett (batik camo!) and Louis Vuitton (“brush stroke” camo!). To name but a few.
Yet in offering a multitude of camouflage interpretations, fashion is simply mimicking the military itself..
The basement storage room of Kaufman’s Army/Navy store on 42nd Street in New York, for example, features about 15 different kinds of camouflage, including: the Woodland camo (dark browns and forest greens), officially introduced in 1981 as part of the Battle Dress Uniform; the Tiger Stripe (interlocking strokes of green and black layered over olive and khaki), which was worn in Vietnam; the “Blueberry” (navy camo in various shades of blue); and the Chocolate Chip (light tan, with brown splotches and black and white “chips” dotted on top), as worn in the Persian Gulf war.
There are camouflage jackets, trousers, tank tops and underwear; camouflage from Germany, Britain and Russia; and gray, black and white camouflage known as “urban camo” that Jim Korn, the owner of Kaufman’s, said was created about 30 years ago, when companies that manufactured clothing for the Army were “between contracts.” Little wonder the store serves as a haunt for designers and their assistants.
(Perhaps not so coincidentally, in turn many members of the design, pattern and prototype team at Natick have fashion backgrounds.)
What sets the new camouflage apart, however, from all these older camouflages is both its aim — to be usable in all terrains — and some controversy around its origins, with some suggesting it is too similar to the Multicam design, the pattern created by Crye Precision.
When asked about ownership, Mr. Layer said, “Both patterns provide effective concealment under similar conditions. This, plus the shared heritage, accounts for perceived similarities between the two patterns.”
David Accetta, a Natick spokesman and United States Army historian, emailed: “The Army possesses appropriate rights to use the OCP on its uniforms and equipment.” He added: “The Army will address any legal issues if and when they arise.” Crye itself did not return calls for comment.
In any case, all of this makes the Operational Camouflage Pattern potentially more attention-grabbing than other camos, and hence even more likely to have some fashion fallout.
Whether that is good or bad, or even appropriate — whether the denaturing of clothing for style purposes should have limits when it comes to garments created to protect and perform — is open to debate. It can be jarring, after all, to walk down the street and pass soldiers wearing Army camouflage one minute and 20-somethings barhopping in neon-toned designer camo the next.
Mr. Korn, who has sold to everyone from military personnel to fashion folk from his store on 42nd Street, doesn’t see a problem.
“Each of us has a right to wear whatever we want,” he said. “It’s part of what we fight for.”