I have a bunch of camo items of clothing — pants, jackets, bags. I even have coveted camo flats. I am not in a militia. I am not former military. Nor was I one of the rioters in the Capitol who wore camo, and who, as Senator Bernie Sanders said, did it to show they were “warriors for the white race.” Which makes me wonder if, after what happened in Washington, anyone can still wear camo as a fashion choice in good faith? — Maria, Philipstown, N.Y.
Camouflage — and, indeed, all things military — has long been a favorite motif of the fashion world, which loves few things as much as a uniform. For almost as long, there have been questions raised around whether such stylistic appropriation is … well, appropriate.
Elsa Schiaparelli worked with camo prints in collections that appeared in both 1931 and 1939. In 1943, Vogue published an article called “Camouflage: The Science of Disguise, A Great Defensive War Weapon.” The 1960s famously saw camo and military uniforms adopted as a protest statement by the counterculture, and in 1971 Yves Saint Laurent included a silk camo-print evening dress in his spring/summer collection.
Designers who have played with camo include John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Miuccia Prada and Rei Kawakubo. Even Adidas took inspiration from World War I’s “dazzle” camo in its 2016 French Open collection. As recently as last October, French Vogue was offering articles on “8 Ways to Wear Camouflage Print This Fall” featuring influencers and editors as inspiration.
“For me, camo is a classic, no different than plaid or polka dots,” said Jeremy Scott, the designer of his own line and Moschino. (In 2017, he and Madonna attended the Met Gala in coordinating Moschino camo caps and gowns.)
The problem is that while at this point, camo for many people may be merely a pattern like many others, it comes with a complicated history and set of reference points. How you wear it — and see it — depends on that.
There is a big difference between wearing highly styled clothes that reference military garb and wearing actual military garb. A difference between defanging combat gear by transforming it into beauty, and doubling down on combat gear by using it as a conduit to a war zone.
In the wake of last week’s attack on the Capitol, the question for anyone interested in wearing the fashion kind of camo is whether the difference is obvious enough to the outside eye — and how to make it so.
The rioters in Washington embraced camouflage and other kinds of battle regalia with literal intent, as Senator Sanders pointed out, and they dressed for it. For them, it was not about wearing camo-inspired print, with all the ironic reassessment that implies; it was about wearing actual camo and playing soldier. They had been told, by their president, to “fight,” so that’s what many of them were getting ready to do.
To make it indubitably clear: Your camo is not their camo. Mr. Scott suggests that the best approach is to take camo out of context: Mix it with neon, or use it for an evening gown (or the kind of clothes that telegraph the whole “make love not war” thing). No one is going to think chiffon camo or tulle camo is combat camo, unless you are in a James Bond movie. But perhaps cargo pants camo is best left in the closet for now.
Every week in our Open Thread newsletter, Vanessa Friedman will answer a reader’s fashion-related question —which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions may be edited and condensed.