In his dark blue jacket and red trousers, the French soldier cut a dashing figure on the battlefield at the turn of the 20th century. It was a uniform the people of France were particularly proud of. But the bright colors stood out from the leafy greens and dirt browns in the landscape of war, and new weapons, especially guns with longer ranges, made the soldiers easy targets.
After a 1912 visit to the Balkans, the French minister of war, Adolphe Messimy, observed how the Bulgarian army’s uniforms blended into the forest. When he returned home, he advocated for dull-colored uniforms for the French army; he wanted the soldiers to wear brown or gray-green. But many in France objected, writing editorials in favor of their patriotic uniforms of blue and red. In Barbara W. Tuchman’s 1962 history of the Great War, The Guns of August, she quoted the daily newspaper L'Écho de Paris: to get rid of “all that is colorful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect, is to go contrary both to French taste and military function.” A former minister of war said it more bluntly: “Eliminate the red trousers? Never!”
But Messimy, who had to contend with a changing landscape of war, had little patience for those who put patriotism over the lives of his soldiers: “That blind and imbecile attachment to the most visible of all colors was to have cruel consequences.” He was right.
Two years later, during the Battle of the Frontiers along the Western Front, a dense region of forests and hills on the border of Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and France, soldiers aimed their machine guns at the easily visible red pants and white gloves of the French army, which stood out against the greenery. Nearly 27,000 soldiers died on a single day, August 22, 1914, which would come to be known as the deadliest day in the history of France. The French changed their minds about the iconic red and blue, and the army changed its uniforms.
Camouflage wasn’t always necessary: when guns could only fire at close range, or soldiers fought with swords instead of guns, there was no way to hide. If you were close enough to fight someone, you were close enough to see them. Uniforms in bold, patriotic colors actually helped, differentiating friend from enemy. During the Revolutionary War, the British Army, resplendent in its red coats, made easy targets for colonial marksmen. The ragtag militia for the rebel colonies wore mismatched, often dull-colored clothing, which allowed them to hide among the trees and fire at the British walking on the road during the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. But those long rifles could only shoot about three bullets a minute, if reloaded quickly. In 1914, machine guns could fire nearly 500 rounds a minute.
To learn how to blend in, the French military turned to an unexpected group—the people who knew best how colors and textures could be used to trick the eye, a resource France had in abundance: artists. Known as camoufleurs, these artists became part of a special military unit that provided camouflage services to the Allied armies during World War I. The camoufleurs would join soldiers in the trenches, painting camouflage patterns directly on weapons, or painting canvas covers with disruptive patterns: brown, black, and green splotches or bold stripes, to make it difficult to see where the weapons’ edges started and stopped. Sometimes devotion to this artistry was dangerous, and in one instance, an artist was shot in the hand when he left a trench to put the final touch on a camouflage pattern.
The camoufleurs also provided the army with color charts that showed different tones of the terrain, depending on the area and season. One such color chart, featured in Tim Newark’s 2007 book Camouflage, looks like an impressionist painting, with golden hues that resemble the sun hitting leaves in the fall, or white and brown tones, like peeking through the leaves of a tree.
Other techniques appeared more like fauna than flora. One particularly notable camouflage technique used during World War I mimicked zebra or tiger stripes: Allied ships used “dazzle” camouflage to break up the shape of ships on the water and confuse the eye, with jagged stripes of white, black, gray, and blue mirroring the way the clouds and sky met the ocean.
During World War II, airplanes and aerial photography became essential tools of war. Soldiers would look up to spot planes coming, and this simple movement turned into a complex problem: the sun would reflect off the oils on their skin and illuminate their faces. They needed a way to hide from the enemy above. For a cheap fix, British artist and camouflage teacher Roland Penrose wrote in the 1941 book Home Guard Manual of Camouflage that a soldier could use a mixture of soot and flour to make a paste that stuck to skin. A soldier could also use green Blanco, a substance that came in soap-like cakes used to clean and polish equipment. For anyone stationed in the countryside, Penrose wrote, cow dung would do the job: “It can be highly recommended in spite of its unpleasantness, since it retains good color and texture when dry.”
If a soldier didn’t want to rub poop into his skin, he could also use charcoal, tree sap, or plain old mud—anything, really, that would keep the eye from recognizing a human face. “Sight is your number-one orienting sense,” says Captain Patrick Ripton, an instructor at the Initial Military Training Leadership School. “You use sight primarily to locate yourself in your environment, then locate yourself in relationship to the enemy.” If that sight line is disrupted and the shape of a person is distorted—buying even a few seconds of hesitation from the enemy—it could help save a soldier’s life.
During World War II, every American soldier learned basic camouflage techniques, using foliage or other materials to blend in with the environment. When applying camouflage face paint, it’s considered best to put dark colors on the high points of your face—where light would normally hit—and light colors where shadows would be. (Sort of the opposite of the current trends in highlighter makeup, which are intended to make skin glowy, not invisible.) This breaks up the shape of the face, blending it with its environment, and hopefully making it more difficult to recognize.
I ask Master Sergeant Michael Fletcher at the Initial Military Training Leadership School about the best techniques for camouflage application. He says they instruct trainees to cover high points—including their cheekbones, forehead, around their mouth, and jaw line—with dark green. The places in-between should be covered in light green, to create a kind of stripe pattern on the face. Greens, however, are only used in wooded areas. In the snowy mountains or the desert, a soldier can use other colors of face paint, or whatever materials are on hand; for example, strips torn off a dirty T-shirt can be tied to a helmet, making the shape less distinguishable from a distance.
Since World War II, the need to blend in has sprouted a niche industry; instead of dirt or dung, soldiers can now use special colored cosmetics to help camouflage their skin. The same materials that women used to get ready for a night on the town in the first half of the 20th century could also help ready a soldier for a day on the battlefield. For example, lampblack—a fine black soot that women often mixed with Vaseline as an early form of mascara—could darken the face of a soldier on a mission under the cover of night. Through at least the 1990s, the US military used face paint that came in metal tubes from Pond’s Extract Co., a US company that has been producing face cream and cosmetics since the late 19th century. Each side of the tube held a different color paint. “It was like trying to put dry pottery clay on your face. You had to heat the stuff up and try to get it where it wasn’t too hot, but just lukewarm, so you could actually smear it on your face,” says 54-year-old veteran Alphonso Cornelius, who used the product in the 1990s. “In the wintertime, trying to put that stuff on was virtually impossible. It was madness.” The metal from the tube would sometimes cut a soldier’s face when it was applied. It was so unpleasant to use that soldiers sometimes wouldn’t wear it.
To provide materials that are safe for soldiers to wear on their bare skin—and comfortable enough that they would actually use it—the military once again turned to working artists as a solution. For one Hollywood makeup artist, this meant partnering with the US military, which is now her company's biggest customer.
Makeup and special effects artist Bobbie Weiner didn’t set out to change the faces of the American military. But when the US Armed Forces was looking for new camouflage face paint, she realized she could fill that need. Weiner’s makeup—sold under the name Bobbie Weiner Enterprises—can withstand sweat and inclement weather, and it was initially created so fans could wear their team’s colors to sports games. Since the late 1990s, her company has produced colored cosmetics specifically made for soldiers. “I just know makeup, and I know what works and what doesn’t work,” Weiner tells me in her Miami office.
Weiner started working as a makeup artist for TV and film after her wealthy husband divorced her when she was 46 and she needed to get a job. She went to beauty school at the suggestion of a stylist at her hair salon; they said her personality was well-suited to the work, which was plentiful in Los Angeles, where she was living at the time. One of her first gigs was for the 1994 cult horror film Pumpkinhead II, where she earned $35 for her first night of work. A poster from the film now hangs on the wall in Weiner’s concrete-floored office, along with other TV and movie memorabilia. I am sitting on a bright red, lip-shaped couch, surrounded by frightening dolls, monster masks, and other relics of her work on horror movies. After stints on other B movies and the TV show Renegade, Weiner was hired for the 1997 film Titanic, to help make the actors floating in the water look frozen to death. To keep the makeup from coming off in the water as the cameras were rolling, Weiner added powder to her product and applied several layers to make sure it stayed on.
One day on set, one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s stunt doubles asked Weiner for blue and gold face paint that he could wear to a San Diego Chargers game. When she later asked him how the game went, he raved about her makeup. “We were on TV, and everyone wanted to know where we got the face paint,” he said, according to Weiner’s 2011 memoir. Sensing an opportunity, Weiner brought prototypes of her makeup to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she made a deal to sell it in the university bookstore.
Before Titanic came out, Weiner was featured on a San Diego morning show doing a makeup demonstration that showcased her special effects makeup from the highly anticipated film. San Diego is also near the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and the manager of the base’s post exchange—the department store where military personnel can buy supplies—saw Weiner’s segment. He called her to set up a meeting and told her he was looking for a new camouflage face paint to replace what they’d been using.
“He told me the stuff stinks, the kids won’t wear it, they break out, it’s greasy. It was like taking butter and putting it on your face,” she says. Weiner spent the next few weeks mixing samples by hand for the military and lining up a way to manufacture it. The resulting paint had no scent, and was easier to wear and safer to use than dirt or feces. Her work paid off: Weiner eventually began selling her makeup to every branch of the US Armed Forces, as well as about ten other militaries worldwide.
Since the 1997 meeting at Camp Pendleton, Bobbie Weiner Enterprises has grown to include more than 250 people. In addition to military camouflage, it sells makeup for Halloween, sports fans, and movies and TV, as well as for morticians to use on corpses. (One time the company accidentally mixed up shipments to a Spencer’s gift store and the Fort Hood military base. “Fort Hood got the black lipstick and the black nail polish, and Spencer’s got the camouflage face paint,” Weiner tells me. “Spencer’s didn’t have a problem with it. The guy at Fort Hood—he had no sense of humor.”) But 90 percent of Weiner’s business comes from helping soldiers blend into the world around them, with different face paints for the woods, the desert, and the jungle. She says hunters also like the olive greens and mud browns of the woodland versions. The US military even sends her fabric swatches, so she can make colors to match certain uniforms. In the first few months of 2018, Weiner says she sold about 11.5 tons of makeup.
Weiner lets me try some of the camouflage creams, which feel smooth and cool on contact. The forest green goes on in a dark, thick line, and the black looks truly black when applied to the skin, not a faded gray. “Don’t be afraid of it,” Weiner says when I stick my fingers in the army-green plastic compact. “Act like you’re a man getting ready to kill somebody.” I can see how putting on the paint would make me feel more like a soldier—not unlike putting on lipstick to assume the role of a woman who has it all together.
For the average soldier on a mission, camouflage face paint often isn’t necessary: if you’re traveling in a truck or a helicopter, the enemy probably knows you’re coming, one veteran points out. “I think it really depends on the mission at hand and also the environment that we’re in. I’m not going to use camouflage if I’m in the desert of Iraq, but I am going to use it in the mountains of Afghanistan, where some mountains do actually have trees,” says Command Sergeant Major Philip Blaisdell from the Leader Training Brigade.
The veterans I spoke with agree that techniques like camouflage face paint are more important for a sniper or someone doing reconnaissance. In the memoir by Lyudmila Pavlichenko—a female Soviet sniper credited with 309 official kills during World War II—she describes camouflage lessons from the sniper school she attended while training for the Red Army: after a lecture on how to hide in a natural setting, the teacher would demonstrate the techniques, sometimes blending so well that his students couldn’t find him. “In those cases, we would shout, ‘We give in,’ and our teacher would emerge before us in some unimaginable yellow-green hooded overalls adorned with tatters of cloth, dry twigs, and clumps of grass,” she wrote.
To be effective, every part of camouflage has to work together to conceal a soldier completely". “There is nothing more ridiculous than an unsuccessful attempt to hide,” wrote Roland Penrose in his 1941 manual. “If, ostrich-like, we merely concentrate on hiding our heads and leaving other important parts visible, we shall excite the enemy’s suspicion and still provide him with a target.”
Captain Patrick Ripton describes camouflage as a kind of philosophy. It’s not just about what face paint you use—it’s about putting yourself in the enemy’s place and thinking about what they can see. It’s about looking out for your fellow soldiers and helping them stay out of harm’s way. “The concepts of camouflage and concealment apply to really everything we do. In any situation, whatever you’re doing, you’re going to be looking out for what amount of your body you’re presenting to the enemy,” he says. This mindset can be traced back to the camoufleurs, who turned camouflage into an art form, studying colors and patterns to help hide soldiers from enemy fire. Whenever a soldier uses camouflage in the field, they owe something to those who came before, wearing bright colors and shining in the sun—those who didn’t survive the fight.