History

Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool 1919 Edward Wadsworth

HMS Kildangan, 1918 IWM/Getty Images

Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve lieutenant-commander Norman Wilkinson said…

‘since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer–to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course on which she was heading.’

Chris Barton 2017 Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion Millbrook Press

Camouflage

Unlike natural camouflage which strives to conceal rather than reveal, WWI Dazzle camouflage uses it’s high contrast patterns to confuse rather than disguise. Artists including Edward Wadsworth were instrumental in designing razzle-dazzle geometric patterns for warships in WWI. The idea was that any given dull grey or blue paint scheme would only serve to contrast and reveal a ship against the sea or sky. Therefore, instead of hiding, a baffling pattern would make it harder for U-boat optical rangefinders to get locked onto the target, while obfuscating the ship’s direction, especially when seen at oblique angles. Each pattern was unique, compounding the problem of ship class recognition. Enemies couldn’t be sure if they were attacking a frigate or a minesweeper. There is only limited evidence of dazzle’s effectiveness – even though it was eventually applied to over 3000 British and Americn vessels, what is certain its that was a huge morale boost for the crews on the ships, the dazzle camouflage serving as a form of tribal warpaint. Despite its mechanical appearance, regular Dazzle camouflage ‘has nothing to do with ‘machine vision.’ Machines are incapable of a state of mind like ‘dazzle’’ (Bruce Sterling. 2012. ‘An Essay on the New Aesthetic’. Wired, 2 April 2012. 

Dazzle Camoufleurs in 1917, the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps (US) dazzling the USS Recruit (a wooden naval recruitment and training building resembling and operating as a battleship) in Union Square, NYC, 1917

Dazzle Camouflage Swimsuits in Margate,‘…widely published at the time by various  European, Australian and American news sources, Le Modes, The Sketch and  New York Tribune..’ (from Camoupedia)

Four British naval officers, distinguished for their success at camouflage, had charge of designing the dresses, and the ballroom looked like the Grant Fleet with all its warpaint on, ready for action. The jazz bands produced sounds that have the same effect upon the ear as this “disruptive coloration” has upon the eye. Who could have thought a dozen years ago, when the Secessionists began to secede and the Cubists began to cube, that soon all governments would be subsidizing this new form of art to the extent of millions a year? People laughed at them in those days, said they were crazy and were wasting their time, but as soon as the submarines got into action, the country called for the man who could make a dreadnaught look like “A Nude Descending a Staircase”…The submerged Hun with his eye glued to the periscope could not tell whether it was a battleship or a Post-Impressionist picture bearing down upon him… …in its new and dazzling guise it may cause collisions in the ballroom as it did on the sea. In these days when dancers do the one-step, two-step, three-step and on up to eight-step simultaneously to the same tune, it is becoming difficult to keep the necessary leeway and seaway. When a ship or a woman is disguised by dazzle decoration one is likely to be more than fifteen points off in judging her course.

The Independent May 3, 1919, p. 160

Fashion

Fashion after the Great War was imprinted by shortages, mourning and practicability, allowing immense changes to be introduced to female attire: clothes became dominated by dark colours and simple cuts, and a new monochrome look became common in womenswear. A much looser and less rigid fit became popular – designer Paul Poiret taking a stance by showcasing the first trousers and the non-corset fitted styles championed by Madeleine Vionett. The military look had crept into fashion, and the more active lifestyle was celebrated by female designers such as Jeanne Paquin and Coco Chanel.

Poiret Grey Suit 

Remarkably, the Zeitgeist of the time allowed some of the most influential french female fashion designers to rise and challenge the feminine silhouette – possibly the Gallic answer to the suffragette movement. 

Chanel, arguably the best-known designer of the time, went on to revolutionise many common standards. She worked in favour of comfort and the independence of women, in 1915 for example: employing Jersey fabric, up until then exclusively preserved for male underwear. 

Yet, Coco saw the material fit the purpose of modern women, and so the collection became an immediate success. Jeanne Paquin, a name unfamiliar to most, on the other hand, changed the way fashion was perceived, thanks to her many publicity stunts.  Paquin staged fashion parades and sent models to appear at social events including operas and horse races –  she can certainly be described as the women who inspired the very idea of the fashion show altogether.