On June 15, 1919, roughly six months after the end of World War I, Alon Bement—Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Columbia University—published a piece in the Washington Times that offered practical advice to readers on how they might apply the nascent science of camouflage to the pursuit of a better life. In “Camouflage for Fat Figures and Faulty Faces,” Bement staked much of his argument on his indelible memory of a “woman who must have weighed over 200 pounds so skillfully dressed that I have never forgotten her.” For Bement, this example proved that careful application of the techniques that militaries had refined during the war could profitably be applied to a range of civilian applications. Bement’s piece—in all its artlessness—is worth considering now, because it encapsulates the vexed gender politics that have attended the development of camouflage in the West since the beginning of the twentieth century, politics that remain operative in coverage of women’s camouflage work in Ukraine today.
Stories about Ukrainian women’s mobilization for the cause have emerged as a small but fairly uniform subgenre of reportage about the war from the beginning. These stories cite Ukrainian women’s camouflage work as part of a broader mobilization by civilians, a mobilization that is often portrayed as universal, volitional, and no less effective for being improvised. Discussions of women’s participation frequently emphasize their pluckiness, with varying degrees of contextualization in Ukrainian history and gender norms. For example, ITV packaged its footage of women of all ages singing patriotic songs and weaving camouflage nets by hand as a feel-good story about a collective spirit of “unbreakable” resistance. That the piece accomplished this in fifty-eight seconds, with no subtitles or translation for the women’s words, reveals the signifying power of the image of the militarized women. But even as depictions like these celebrate the women’s ingenuity and tirelessness, they also trivialize and naturalize their participation in camouflage work.
This has been a recurring pattern in representations of women camoufleurs since the widespread adoption of camouflage as a military technology in the West, during the era of World War I. Camouflage as we know it—a tactical use of coloration to conceal military equipment, positions, and personnel—actually has a relatively short history. Among Western militaries, its development was occasioned largely by advances in the technology of warfare during World War I: specifically the airplane, the camera, and the submarine. The turn toward concealment marked a dramatic visual change from wars of earlier eras, in which armies typically courted visibility (think the red coats of the British) as part of a strategy of intimidation. Changes in warfighting technology transformed invisibility into a necessity, which required the establishment of a differently mediated relationship to the environment in which militaries were fighting and civilians were trying to survive. Even as nations raced to develop these technologies, they also had to scramble ways to protect themselves from what they created, an elaborate and deadly form—as art historian Hanna Rose Shell puts it—of hide-and-seek. Camouflage was, in cultural and historical geographer Isla Forsyth’s terms, a project of “turning sight against itself.” And almost from the beginning, women were central to this work.
Yet their work was systematically discounted, undervalued, and even derided. Of course, this is typical—as political scientists like Cynthia Enloe and others have noted—of how nation-states regard women’s contributions to militarization. But this dynamic was especially acute in the case of camouflage, because it seemed so similar to behaviors that women naturally engaged in, like wearing make-up and deceiving men with visual tricks. Some observers questioned the value of camouflage to begin with, intimating that it was unmanly and perhaps even uncivilized to hide from enemies. Indeed, as theater and performance studies scholar Laura Levin notes, invisibility and blending in have long been practices associated with marginalized groups. Further, much of the early research on protective coloration came from observation of animals, and some advocates of camouflage, especially in the US, recalled that the ability to blend in with one’s environment was part of what gave “Indians” a lethal advantage over white settlers. Yet over the course of the first World War, the popular consensus around camouflage shifted not just to approval but to enthusiasm, even if it was sometimes tempered with confusion or amusement.
The sentiment about women as camouflage workers, however, remained contradictory. On the one hand, for example, the US Army produced a newsreel that featured extended shots of French women painting large sheets of camouflage. And many American newspapers and magazines ran stories about the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps, a volunteer group of American artists who played an essential role in the conceptualization and development of ship and wearable camouflage. These stories regularly praised their training, skill, smarts, and work ethic, as well as the success of their designs. On the other hand, as modernist literary scholar Emily James observes, wartime journalists often used metaphors of sexual pursuit to describe the visual dynamics that camouflage created. Additionally, commentary about women’s natural aptitude for this kind of trickery and sexist cartoons like “A Free Tip for the Army: Why Not Try Women Camoufleurs?” proliferated. In this discourse, camouflage was understood as the effeminate art accompanying the masculine science of war. Simultaneously, women camoufleurs’ obvious facility with this cutting-edge technology was minimized by comparison to feminine wiles, or chalked up—in the case of wearable camouflage, where women were truly the pioneers—to an expertise in fashion or sewing.
More than a century on, many similar themes recur in coverage of Ukrainian women’s camouflage. News coverage still underplays the labor-intensiveness of camouflage-making and the skill required to do it well. The Ottawa Citizen, which published a photo essay about Ukrainian women’s camouflage work in what was previously a public library, notes that camouflage-making volunteers have to learn different types of knots as they weave by hand. Describing the purpose of the camouflage, a story in the Telegraph explains that camouflage nets have to hide both personnel and equipment from mechanized aerial surveillance and human reconnaissance, and that the volunteers consult with military advisers to be sure they are creating camouflage appropriate to the seasonal weather conditions. But rather than acknowledge that this is complex and valuable military work, the journalist instead includes a quote from a woman who refers to a “legend” that the nets they make have a “special protection and blessing” that deters bombs from hitting them. As in the past, when women artists and designers made crucial technical contributions to the development of camouflage, their actual technical expertise goes unremarked here.
Many stories also emphasize the pleasure that Ukrainian women derive from their camouflage work. As in World War I, when American women were expected to perform their domestic labors joyfully, the motif of happiness recurs in these depictions. In these accounts, women enthusiastically tear up their old green and brown clothes for repurposing; a camouflage story in Business Insider (India) explicitly references a “strange sense of good cheer” in the workspace. This framing, which suggests that women aren’t smart or perceptive enough to realize the seriousness of war, serves to smooth out the discursive tensions that might otherwise be provoked by the idea of women participating actively in the work of militarization.
Likewise the implication that camouflage work is a natural extension of other forms of feminized labor, an impression reinforced by the notion that women are happy to do this. Accordingly, the Washington Post describes a makeshift camouflage operation in the basement of a Kyiv museum as a “take on a sewing circle or knitting club.” (Parenthetically, the militarized history of women’s knitting is really interesting in its own right.) And many stories note that the women frequently include baked goods with their deliveries of camouflage. A story by the BBC, about a group of Ukrainian seamstresses in Warsaw who make “wedding dresses by day” and convert to the manufacture of camouflage capes out of donated coffee sacks for the army by night, incorporates sentimental music and b-roll of brides getting fitted. A comical shot of a cape hanging on a mannequin torso wearing only a white lacy push-up bra heightens the impression of femininity and, hence, triviality.
Indeed, most accounts attribute women’s motivation to make camouflage netting to an amorphous wish simply to do something to protect their homeland. The photo essay in the Ottawa Citizen is the most detailed account that I have found, but it also replicates this pattern, noting that the establishment of the library site was “accidental” and paraphrasing the comments of volunteers who describe camouflage-making as therapeutic, giving them a sense of purpose and a distraction from their problems. Similarly, a story in the Washington Post describes one camoufleur “[finding] a refuge for her nerves” in the work. These portrayals may be accurate, but describing this impetus in terms of emotional urgency (rather than, say, rational thought) understates the complexity of the women’s political subjectivities and the significance of their contributions.
Of course, it is a tricky thing to argue for the recognition of women’s contributions to militarization, because of the inherent risk of endorsing the logics of militarization in the process, and I’ve struggled with this dilemma throughout my work trying to uncover the gendered history of camouflage. In the case of the current conflict, however, I think it’s worth considering the discursive work that representations of women camouflaging does, or did. Notably, virtually all of the news coverage of women’s camouflage work was from the early days of the war in February and March. Stories about Ukrainian women camouflaging scratched the same underdog ideological itch as the accounts of Ukrainian soldiers using their dying breaths to tell invading Russian troops to go fuck themselves or elderly Ukrainian women taunting them with threats of impotence. But now, as the tolerance of other Western nation states for the costs of supporting Ukraine begin to erode, so too does the appetite for stories about Ukrainians themselves. Women volunteers may still be knotting strips of cloth and fishing nets into camouflage for others, maybe even at this very moment, but they have themselves become invisible again.
Rebecca A. Adelman is Professor and Chair of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in Baltimore, where she is also an affiliate professor in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies. Her research is animated by a curiosity about the intersections of visual culture and militarized violence, especially questions of affect, citizenship, and ethics. She is the author of Beyond the Checkpoint: Visual Practices in America’s Global War on Terror (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), Figuring Violence: Affective Investments in Perpetual War (Fordham University Press, 2019), and co-editor of Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). She’s also the creator of Coronavirus Lost and Found (pandemicarchive.com), a public archival project where anyone can log anything they’ve lost or found because of coronavirus.