The Evolution of Color in Military Uniforms

About this essay


Military uniforms have taken on many different colors and forms in the past few centuries. As military technologies have improved throughout these many years, uniforms have also progressed to keep up with the changing battlefield environments. When people think of a military uniform, camouflage is something that comes up immediately. In reality, the practice of printing camouflage on basic military uniforms is something that was only implemented within the past 50 years. Although a relatively recent development, camouflage has taken over military uniforms across the globe.

Not only that, but also, just as the advent of camouflage spurred changes in uniforms around the world, improving technologies are currently spurring significant changes in camouflage designs themselves.

History of color in the military:

Armies had been utilizing flags, banners, insignia, etc. for centuries during the Middle Ages; the first official “modern” military uniform appeared in the 17th century after the Thirty Years War. The evolution of military uniforms to that of the “modern” era can be seen during the Thirty Years War when the participants of the war employed colored sashes for their soldiers—the Danes used blue and orange sashes, the Swedes blue, and the Dutch orange and white.

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The modern military uniform was adopted when states began to generate their own standing armies and uniforms were intended to symbolize a state’s power. One of the main purposes of these matching uniforms was to distinguish friend from foe. European nations each chose bright colors—often ones with historical significance to the nation—that were easily distinguishable from that of their enemies.

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As a result, by the late 17th century, Britain adopted red uniforms, the Germans adopted dark blue, and France, Russia, and Austria fought in white.

Matching, colored uniforms generated not only a sense of pride among soldiers, but also were used to bolster the physical appearance of the soldiers when deployed in the field as a means of intimidating the enemy; unlike modern philosophy surrounding combat, the purpose of these uniforms was to actively display a soldier’s presence on the battlefield to the enemy. It was during this time period when military uniforms became intimately associated with nationalism and a state’s power.

All from the 17th century to the late 19th century, these aforementioned colored uniforms dominated the battlefields of Europe. With the development of large, industrial weaponry, however, near the end of the 19th century, colored uniforms became increasingly unsuitable for evolving battlefield tactics. The late 19th century is when western powers began to make the switch from colored uniforms announcing a soldier’s presence to a different kind of uniform designed focused on concealment. The bright and elaborate was soon replaced by the dull and functional. Britain led this change when in 1857, khaki colored uniforms were adopted in India by all British regiments. Then, by 1902, khaki colored uniforms became the official Service Dress for the British Army. Other countries followed Britain’s lead with German adopting a field-gray color by 1910 and France developing a dark blue uniform by 1915. Throughout the 20th century, from the First World War to the Vietnam conflict, mass citizen armies were dressed in matching, dull uniforms to offer concealment in the field. The only exceptions were elite forces such as the United States Navy SEALs during Vietnam or the German SS during World War II; their uniforms offered patterns of monochrome browns, greens, and grays as camouflage to reflect the environment in which these forces operated.

After World War II and nearing the end of the 20th century, not only have armies shrunk to become small, professional all-volunteer forces, but also the old field uniforms used from the 17th to 19th century have mostly been retired. By the end of the 20th century, they have been replaced by the camouflage designs that used to be limited only to troops of elite units. As a result, the British Army created Disruptive Pattern Material (DPM) uniforms in the 1970s, the United States created their woodland pattern uniform in the 1980s, the Germans began utilizing flecktarn pattern uniforms in the late 1980s, and the French introduced similar camouflage designs during this time period. Disruptive camouflage patterns became the dominant style of uniforms for nearly all militaries during this time. These uniforms were made up of four colors: green, light brown, dark brown, and black; armies would generally issue one pattern for soldiers operating in forests and another pattern for those operating in deserts.

As a recap, bright, colored uniforms dominated the battlefield up until around 1900. Monochrome uniforms were adopted by countries all around the world for a large portion of the 20th century. For roughly 30 years from 1970 to 2000, the disruptive camouflage pattern could be seen worn by militaries all around the world. Now, in the beginning of the 21st century, a new color pattern is beginning to take ahold of western military dress: digital camouflage. As DPM uniforms slowly replaced all of the monochrome uniforms around 1970, digital camouflage is slowly pushing DPM out of militaries across the globe.

Modern Camouflage:

Although pseudo-camouflage uniforms existed before the 20th century—for instance, during the Seven Years’ War, some soldiers whose role was to skirmish the enemy in front of the main line donned dark green uniforms with some intent of camouflage—the modern concept of camouflage that we hold today is a relatively new idea. These ideas can be traced back to World War I when combatants were encouraged to innovate designs of concealment as a result of the conditions on the Western Front. The French were at the forefront of camouflage development and their principle sources for inspiration were derived from both ecology and art. As such, an American artist and naturalist named Abbott Thayer who conducted studies on animal coloration was one of the most notable figures in the advent of camouflage. In his work, Thayer identified the concepts of blending and dispersal, two means by which animals have evolved to conceal themselves in nature. Animals blend into the background by adopting roughly the same color as it, which is a generally known concept. More importantly, however, Thayer was the first to identify one of the key adaptations that animals have made to streamline this process of color blending: countershading. Biologists have long been at a loss as to the evolutionary advantages

of the extremely pale undersides that color both land and sea animals; the resounding notion was that a white underbelly would make the animal more visible. Thayer, however, showed that when exposed to a bright light from above, the darker upper body of an animal would be illuminated as the underside cast into a shadow. As a result, the darker upper body and the lighter underbelly were equalized by the daylight’s brightness so the animal’s body appeared roughly all the same color. This phenomenon causes the animal to lose its identifiable shape and appear flat against its background.

In addition to these relatively subtle differences in color across an animal’s body, many of them have evolved to display designs such as spots, stripes, or patches that disrupt the outline of their form and make identification more difficult. For instance, tigers, leopards, and zebras are all animals that employ disruptive coloring to better conceal themselves. During World War I, Thayer contributed to the United States war effort by offering a multitude of suggestions regarding the concealment of military targets on land and sea by disrupting their outlines; among these suggestions were proposals for disrupted camouflage uniforms for soldiers—although Thayer made his suggestions, as mentioned earlier, militaries would not adopt patterns such as DPM until the late 1900s. In terms of the concept of color disruption, Thayer was not the only one to make intellectual breakthroughs. The French applied many art forms such as Cubism, impressionism, and pointillism to the process of designing disruptive camouflage. French painter, Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola, created sheets with disruptive patterns to cover their artillery and planned the designs of the guns themselves such that they would be disguised in black and white reconnaissance photos.

The two qualities of blending and disruption in the animal kingdom remained important aspects in the design of DPM in the late 20th century; despite more recent advances and a growing sentiment for something called digital camouflage, these two attributes are still fundamental to the field of camouflage. Digital camouflage uses these same principles of blending and disruption and it is claimed that it is superior at both when pitted against DPM. A misconception surrounding digital camouflage is that every pixelated design is considered digital camouflage; in reality, digital camouflage is simply a pattern created with computer algorithms and assistance. One of the most prominent figures in the field of digital camouflage has been Lieutenant Colonel Timothy O’Neill—he has been researching camouflage ever since its implementation in militaries across the globe and holds a PhD in visual psychology.

According to O’Neill, DPM as a form of personal camouflage has been relatively effective, however, there is much room for improvement. O’Neill mentions that DPM is not ideal as its founding principles do not address the question of how the human eye acquires targets nor do they examine the background environment in which soldiers operate. O’Neill seeks to solve these problems in his research regarding digital camouflage. His new uniforms would involve an analysis of likely background environments in which soldiers will operate to identify the most commonly occurring colors and the proportion in which these colors appear. With this analysis in hand, a pattern that best matches a soldier’s operating background is developed. In addition to having a deep level of contextual research attached to its creation, digital camouflage seeks to implement a few other innovations. In a shift from the four-color disruptive pattern with large, blotchy shapes, digital camouflage mixes colors together in an attempt to blur the design. Digital camouflage is specifically designed to confuse the human eye through the dithering effect its busier pattern offers. In the process of choosing colors, digital camouflage patterns avoid

isoluminant colors of the same brightness as this results in the pattern appearing as a plain monochrome color. The best digital camouflage designs aim to create a pattern that gives a sense of depth by the combination of colors of different brightness—the exact opposite of the aforementioned countershading.

Looking forward

From brightly colored coats to computer-generated digital camouflage, military uniforms have come a long way. Many trials and tests have been conducted in which digital camouflage came out on top as the best modern form of concealment for a soldier’s uniform. There are, however, many aspects to consider for future developments. For instance, past a distance of 300 meters, digital camouflage works no better than DPM or even a monochrome khaki uniform in terms of concealment; this could prove problematic as weapons technologies increase and combat is conducted from further distances. In addition, a soldier’s outfit contains much more than just a uniform. Gear such as rifles, rucksacks, body armor, or other general military equipment may negate the uniform’s camouflage qualities. Furthermore, a soldier’s uniform may get dirty or bleached by the sun, also negating the effects of the digital camouflage pattern. While digital camouflage remains the best option for militaries worldwide, the level of concealment that the pattern provides in theory has the potential to be completely erased by practices in the battlefield, leaving much room for improvement.

Cite this page

The Evolution of Color in Military Uniforms. (2022, Jan 01). Retrieved from

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