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Camoufleuse: The Dazzling of Women at War

One who is of the camouflage is called a camoufleur.

—H. Ledyard Towle[1]

Modernism and camouflage would seem to be unlikely allies. One advances and the other retreats. One rebels and resists; the other lurks undercover. But during World War I, a group of renegade camoufleurs forged an uneasy truce between modernism’s flash and camouflage’s muted secrets. Their sources were extraordinary and eclectic. Drawing inspiration from animal behavior, avant-garde design, and women’s fashion, the camoufleur—and, as I argue, the camoufleuse—worked to reimagine visibility and warfare in modern terms.

Camouflage, its quiet aesthetic and perceptual logic, no doubt inflected art and literature across the twentieth century. But its sightings are few and fleeting: effective camouflage, after all, is more absence than presence. The poets of World War I made good use of camouflage’s muted palette. Siegfried Sassoon’s “To Victory” (1916) imagines the world’s vibrant pigments dulled by war. “Return to greet me, colours that were my joy,” implores the poem’s speaker; “I am tired of the greys and browns and the leafless ash.”[2] David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937), devastating in its account of World War I, includes frequent but appropriately subtle references to camouflage. For soldiers “exposed and apprehensive in this new world,” the flimsy protections afforded by “sagging camouflage,” “flotsam shift,” or “gossamer swaying” offer little comfort.[3]

Beyond war poetry, we find recurring parallels between camouflage’s trompe l’oeil and modernist experiments with perceptual trickery, such as the slide between individuation and de-individuation, or the melt of foreground into background. In H. D.’s “Oread” (1914), the reciprocal mimicry of sea and land could be understood in terms of camouflage. As waves and trees swap shapes and colors, their contours and boundaries become muddied and indistinct. In the final couplet, the speaker adopts the tactics of camouflage: “hurl your green over us, / cover us with your pools of fir.”[4] Who covers whom is unclear: forest and sea abandon their borders.[5]

Modern camouflage and its modernist currency dovetailed with the era’s fascination with secrecy, disguise, and espionage. A leading man in modernism’s costume drama is the Man in the Mac who skulks in the shadows of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Thanks to Celia Marshik’s illuminating research on the mackintosh, we can connect Joyce’s shadowy character to the physical and mental repercussions of trench warfare. The mac, she explains, came to represent “the loss of individuality required by military life,” a campaign that “effac[ed] distinctions between the different fronts, campaigns, and individuals fighting around the globe.”[6]

What Marshik describes as effacement, or a “loss of individuality,” followed soldiers home and shaped their postwar perceptual habits. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), shell-shocked Septimus Smith is haunted by apparitions of his deceased comrade Evans, who flits in and out of the narrative as the “man in grey,” still wearing, in other words, the dreary uniform he might have worn at the front.[7] But even more telling is that Septimus has become uneasy about his ability to read his environment. Particularly when confronted with natural phenomena like trees rustling in the wind, his shell shock takes a perceptual turn—as if he carries with him an anxiety about detecting camouflage or discerning foreground from background. In Regent’s Park, he studies “the long slope of the park,” where he sees not hillocks and grass but instead “a length of green stuff with a ceiling cloth of blue and pink smoke high above” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 25). The sight plainly unsettles him: “they must get away from people, he said (jumping up), right away over there” (25). He has been trained, it seems, to assume that the environment is riddled with optical illusions, in this instance assembled from “cloth” and “green stuff.”[8] Perhaps wise to his perceptual confusion, his wife Rezia responds by thrice reminding him to “look”—to “notice real things” (25). But Septimus has learned to distrust his own eyes. His unease suggests that he has learned to second-guess surfaces and doubt the appearance of wholeness. Immersed in Woolf’s free indirect discourse, the novel’s readers come to see like the canny soldier: every natural panorama eclipses a tank, and every bramble a lurking enemy.

Such examples suggest that wartime camouflage calls for a new way of seeing, one that demands a heightened, sharpened awareness of surface and depth, foreground and background. As Patrick Deer writes, “in the anti-landscapes of the trenches, seeing, in the traditional sense, has become defamiliarized, uncoupled from perception and emotion.”[9] Far above the trenches, developments in aerial reconnaissance during World War I gave rise to remarkable perceptual adaptations. Paul K. Saint-Amour has shown how specialists in aerial stereoscopy learned to second-guess the eye, “relearn[ing] depth perception” and “retraining their optical reflexes,” in order to accommodate distortions and spot camouflaged features from the sky.[10] It is plausible that soldiers wise to the wiles of camouflage might adopt a similarly heightened perceptual wariness. Septimus, one imagines, would become well-versed in scrutinizing surfaces, facades, and exteriors for tell-tale signs of a disguised enemy. Camouflage, in short, would have changed his perceptual habits.

Camouflage has likely changed our perceptual habits, too. Whether listening closely to Sassoon’s mournful speaker or privy to Septimus Smith’s disorientation, we readers of modernist fiction, particularly the free indirect discourse pioneered by the likes of Joyce and Woolf, must retrain our reflexes to see the world through a soldier’s eyes—to scan our environments with modern suspicions and novel anxieties. We read like prey.

One reader of modernism, a reviewer of Joyce’s Ulysses, framed his criticisms in terms of a singular and curious form of animal camouflage. The novel’s 1922 publication, of course, had provoked awe and outrage in equal measure. And as readers traded salacious details in hushed voices, critics debated the novel’s merits and did their part to amplify its notoriety. N. P. Dawson, one of the novel’s most aggrieved readers and a reviewer for Forum, described the novel as a “mystifying jumble of half a million words,” a work that “[n]ot more than five or ten people will be able to read.”[11] Dawson joins a chorus of readers perennially affronted by modernism’s plot-averse narratives, wayward syntax, and navel-gazing streams of consciousness. This article is concerned not with the particular grounds for Dawson’s dismissal of modernist fiction but with his review’s peculiar title and conceit, “The Cuttlefish School of Writers.” These writers, he explains,

imitate the cuttlefish, and conceal their shortcomings by “ejecting an inky fluid” . . . The Cuttlefish School would not be a bad name for these writers who perhaps not being as great geniuses as they would like to be, eject their inky fluid, splash about and make a great fuss, so that it is difficult to tell what it is all about. (Dawson, “Cuttlefish,” 1182)

Joyce must have enjoyed Dawson’s analogy because the crafty cuttlefish resurfaces in Finnegans Wake (1939). Shem the Penman, assumed by most readers to be a caricature of Joyce himself, can be found not writing but “cuttlefishing.”[12] Shem’s creative process mimics the creature’s inky tactics; his workplace is spattered with “crocodile tears, spilt ink, blasphematory spits” (Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 183).

But Dawson’s choice remains perplexing: why invoke the cuttlefish, an obscure cousin of the squid and octopus, to explain the storied bewilderments of modernism? Charles Darwin once admired the creature’s “very extraordinary, chameleon-like power” even as its stratagem of secrecy is in fact bolder than the comparison would suggest.[13] When the cuttlefish shoots clouds of ink at predators, these clouds form what zoologists term “pseudomorphs,” or false bodies.[14] And once it has mobilized these phantoms, the cuttlefish slyly blanches and retreats. The predator, meanwhile, remains in thrall to the pseudomorph’s shadowy antics, mesmerized by inky spectacle.[15] The cuttlefish, incredibly, writes itself a crime-fighting avatar.[16]

By citing the unlikely tactics of the cuttlefish, Dawson introduces the logic of camouflage, but not the muted khaki we now associate with military uniforms. But the cuttlefish does not exactly hide itself. On the contrary, it stuns and astonishes its predators. In comparing the creature’s sleight of hand (or tentacle) to modernist form, Dawson gestures to a phenomenon termed dazzle camouflage. Dazzle, a bold subspecies of camouflage that arose in the early twentieth century, was first spotted in the tactics of particular animals and then coopted by naval strategists during World War I. In 1917 and 1918, fleets of outlandish naval ships took to the Atlantic. Painted in jarring colors and startling geometric angles, the ships resembled Cubist canvases. The resemblance is no coincidence: during the war, painters and designers, many of them affiliated with the avant-garde, worked to intervene in the visibility of modern warfare.[17] To some, dazzle was brutal, dissonant, and violent. To others, it was beautiful—astonishingly and singularly beautiful. Stunned by its drama and scale, observers struggled to describe the spectacle of naval ships awash in color and fractured by violent diagonals.[18] Today, such spectacle may seem surreal; dazzle’s aesthetic drama is plainly at odds with our sense of war’s banality or the uniformity of military culture.

Dazzle is bewilderment with an aim, and the same might be said of the avant-garde. In surveying dazzle’s indisputable confluence with modernist form, it is tempting to broaden the term until it encompasses any modernist shock or rupture—a catch-all synonym for F. T. Marinetti’s obsession with “the slap and the punch” of modernity or “the great spectacle of disaster, fire, decomposition” imagined by Tristan Tzara.[19] But dazzle, strictly interpreted, exists in the suspenseful antics of predator and prey—a drama that first arose in the animal kingdom. Keeping in mind the term’s debts to predation, we ought to take seriously Dawson’s analogy. The clever cuttlefish might well be modernism’s mascot: its pseudomorphs, those inky bodies readied for battle, can distract from its quieter political force. Assuming for a moment that modernist writers are dazzling the page, stunning their readers with explosions of ink, we ought to ask why.

Recall the well-worn anecdote about Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein marveling at the sight of a camouflaged tank rolling through the streets of Paris in early 1915. As Stein recounted, “Pablo stopped, he was spell-bound. C’est nous qui avons fait ça, he said, it is we that have created that.”[20] Although we may never know whether they witnessed dazzle camouflage, Stein’s choice of words (“spell-bound”) would certainly suggest it.[21] If so, Picasso may have unwittingly and quite casually diagnosed dazzle’s curious ties to the avant-garde. Many have speculated about who influenced whom, and this article makes no attempts to award primacy to either; more interesting to me is the possibility that both were shaped by something else.[22]

Both dazzle camouflage and avant-garde form gave rise to new perceptual demands, challenges, and strains. The modern soldier would learn to distinguish a target’s showy misdirection from its true course—to ignore the inky pseudomorphs in order to spot the cuttlefish’s shrewd escape. In fact, soldiers and civilians alike were already equipped to make such assessments and they were trained, strangely enough, by material culture and women’s fashion. The unusual story of dazzle camouflage, so consistently framed by war, might seem to be a predominantly masculine history in telling and tale. Few have recognized the crucial role of women in the making and marketing of dazzle. What’s more, these developments were parallel to, and arguably shaped by, the sartorial tactics and strategies of modern women.[23]

This article draws on literary accounts of camouflage, including verses by Amy Lowell and Virginia Woolf’s late meditations on war and gender. These offer ballast to my focus on cultural ephemera from World War I, primarily periodicals from both sides of the Atlantic, that uncover in peeks and glimpses the largely invisible work of the camoufleuse and her surprising ties to avant-garde culture. Such work might seem to be the stuff of strictest military secrecy, but the public had many occasions to witness dazzle’s mechanics firsthand. In 1918, the women of the Camouflage Corps dazzled ships in public arenas such as Union Square and the New York Public Library, as if teaching the public to decipher these puzzling designs. These stunts, highly visible and well-publicized, exposed telling connections between camouflage and gender, namely, the assumption that women have long employed the art and science of dazzle to misdirect predators. And in using these dazzling performances to recruit soldiers, the military not only shed light on the strategies of the camoufleuse but effectively traded her privacy for conscripts. I revisit these performances in order to argue that dazzle employs a behavior well-known to women, a performed and calculated visibility akin to the flashy antics of the cuttlefish. In jamming the frequency of the male gaze, the camoufleuse, like the ship she dazzles, inverts the logic of disguise.[24] She hides in plain sight.

From Camoufleur to Camoufleuse

Camouflage is enigmatic, and so too is its history. To study camouflage is to construct a rhetoric of bewilderment—to embark upon what sociologist Roger Caillois once described as a “search for invisibility.” [25] And as scholars of camouflage work to parse the invisible, they necessarily dwell in paradox: a No Man’s Land of disciplinary affiliations and inheritances. To Solomon J. Solomon, an early-century expert, the camoufleur “is ‘of course’ an artist,” one for whom “imagination and inventiveness should have free play,” but one with “some deductive faculties.”[26] Historian Regina Lee Blaszczyk echoes these terms: the camoufleur “combine[s] a painter’s command of optical illusion with a naturalist’s understanding of deceptive coloration.”[27] As the Impressionist combines colors with differing proximal and distal effects, so does the camoufleur—“a colorist-trickster,” in Blaszczyk’s estimation—manipulate the human eye (Color, 96). As science historian Hanna Rose Shell quips, camouflage is “creative and productive; it is both a logic and a poetic” (Hide and Seek, 23).

Pioneers in camouflage design drew in equal measure from art and science. One such pioneer was Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849–1921), an American artist and naturalist. His hybrid identification speaks to camouflage’s eclectic genealogy of artists, naturalists, and military strategists. Military camouflage had already changed radically in design and effect in Thayer’s lifetime. Once military strategists realized the folly of wearing blood-red uniforms in battle (such as those worn in the Napoleonic Wars), they began to mimic the disguises of their animal kin—hides, coats, and plumage—who had in turn adopted these designs from the hues and patterns of their environments.[28] In so doing, military camouflage aimed to blend the target or prey into its environment or background. By the late nineteenth century, military camoufleurs had adopted a strategically tedious palette of khaki and grey—a tactic today termed low-contrast camouflage. But Thayer’s research shed light on what he termed countershading and disruptive patterning, or patterns now understood as high-contrast camouflage. These revelations were counterintuitive to many, including birdwatchers, hunters, and scientists. As Thayer demonstrated with an eclectic (and, by all accounts, bizarre) mix of stencils, taxidermy, and photomontages, animals can elude their predators with strong contrasts and dramatic patterns that disrupt contours and muddy outlines.[29] The animal does not necessarily decrease its visibility, in other words, or blend in with its environment; instead, it confounds and confuses its predator.[30] The publication of Thayer’s treatise Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom in 1909 at once stirred the ornithological community and infuriated former president and avid hunter Theodore Roosevelt. Thayer had reimagined animal crypsis in terms that would alter human perception and transform modern warfare.

As World War I began, Thayer shifted his attention to human camouflage. He paired his considerable knowledge of animal camouflage with a study of the tattoos of indigenous populations in order to create elaborate photo-collages that, he hoped, could illustrate the promise of camouflage for military uniforms.[31] When he first reached out to the British War Office to share his ideas for camouflaged uniforms, his suggestions were met with silence. Thayer persisted, though, designing a “prototype sniper suit” in an array of bright colors—a design inspired by a hunting coat he had inherited, incredibly, from William James several years earlier and then adorned with scraps, snippets, and shreds of painted fabric (Shell, Hide and Seek, 72). The tattered coat, writes Shell, “grew threadbare and acquired a patina” and “became his sartorial second skin, practical for painting in the studio and trekking through the outdoors” (72). Thayer’s whimsical design approximated the disruptive patterning he had theorized in 1909. Hoping to persuade Winston Churchill to adopt his ideas, Thayer presented his harlequin-esque costume to the British War Office. American painter John Singer Sargent, friendly with Thayer and employed by the British, would recall that his friend’s magnum opus consisted of “’some drawings and an old spotted brown jacket with rags pinned to it’” (73). Although Thayer’s eccentric appeals were mostly ineffective, his designs seem to have anticipated a sea change in camouflage design.[32]

Thayer was right: low-contrast camouflage was no match for modern warfare. Allied naval engineers, alarmed by the devastating attacks of German U-boats, became disenchanted with the logic of low-contrast camouflage. Designed to blend in with the sky and sea, the white- and gray-painted ships were easily spotted against the horizon. Painter Norman Wilkinson was the first to propose to the Royal Navy a new and distinctive style of camouflage, which he first termed “dazzle painting.”[33] Much like the disruptive patterning theorized by Thayer several years earlier, dazzle relied on principles of high-contrast camouflage: rather than aim to blend into one’s surroundings, the objective was to stun or even blind the enemy. As journalist Alon Bement explained, dazzle could distort the enemy’s perception of a ship’s course, speed, and size—effectively misdirecting U-boat attacks.

It would make the vessel seem to be off her course from ahead, abeam and astern; the masses of white near the water line at the bow would reduce the visibility of the bow wave, and make it hard to calculate her speed; and, under favorable atmospheric conditions, the markings would seem to shorten her length by losing certain parts of the bow and stern against the sky.[34]

By early 1918, dazzle’s strategic distortions had become widespread, and in some cases compulsory, on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States decreed that “no ship could clear without it, for by that time it was recognized that the most fatal error the U-boat could make was to miscalculate a ship’s course” (Bement, “Ship Camouflage,” 93). And fatal it was. Dazzle proved so effective that it led to tragic mishaps between allied ships, such as the USS Stockton’s collision with an allied ship in 1918.[35]

From the beginning, dazzle’s debts to avant-garde aesthetics were many—debts, of course, that Picasso had noted with awe and perhaps a note of outrage. In assembling a regiment of camoufleurs for the Royal Navy, Wilkinson hired avant-garde artist Edward Wadsworth, whose name had appeared along with those of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis on the 1914 Vorticist manifesto. Both editions of BLAST, 1914 and 1915, are peppered with his designs—several of which anticipate his wartime work with dazzle. After designing camouflage for naval ships in 1917 and 1918, Wadsworth went on to integrate these designs into his own creative work, such as “Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool” (1919) (fig. 1).[36] Looking closely at his work before, during, and after the war, there’s no doubt that Wadsworth’s avant-garde aesthetic informed his camouflage strategy, and vice versa. His career, typical of many of the war’s most prominent camoufleurs, suggests that the relationship between dazzle and avant-garde design was never a simple matter of causality but rather a rich and ongoing symbiosis.

Edward Wadsworth, “Dazzle-Ships in Drydock at Liverpool,” (1919).
Fig. 1. Edward Wadsworth, “Dazzle-Ships in Drydock at Liverpool,” (1919). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dazzle’s novel distortions were not only practical and effective but also aesthetically stunning. “To the lover of the ship for the ship’s sake,” explains journalist Hugh Hurst in 1919, “the appearance of our docks in the great ports during the war may perhaps have come as somewhat of a shock, but to the artist the transformation from a monotonous uniformity to a scene presenting a pageant-like array of strong colour and strange designs this change can have been nothing but a joy.”[37] What Hurst describes as “monotonous uniformity” could as easily refer to the war’s chilling banality: when violence becomes ordinary to the point of tedious, and trauma is not novel but numbing. But dazzle offered the war-wearied mind a sensory escape. Hurst describes the “kaleidoscopic effect” and “interesting confusion” of the ships as they moved alongside one another,

each resplendent with a variety of bright-hued patterns, up-to-date designs of stripes in black and white or pale blue and deep ultramarine, and earlier designs of curves, patches, and semicircles. Take all these, huddle them together in what appears to be hopeless confusion, but which in reality is perfect order, bow and stern pointing in all directions, mix a little sunshine, add the varied and sparkling reflections, stir the hotchpotch up with smoke, life, and incessant movement, and it can safely be said that the word “dazzle” is not far from the mark. (“Dazzle-Painting,” 94, 93).

Hurst’s account of dazzle features a striking affective register (“resplendent,” “bright-hued,” “sparkling,” and “hotchpotch”); dazzle’s novelty must have offered some aesthetic solace to soldiers and civilians alike. What’s more, these glittering effects, conjured in smoke, suggest the touch of a magician or wizard—akin to Stein’s recollection of Picasso “spell-bound” at the sight of camouflage. Hurst was not the only bystander to cast these designs in fantastic terms. For many, dazzle was neither art nor science. It was magic.

Dazzle’s sorcery caught the eye of poets, too, and one in particular. Amy Lowell, American poet and Imagist pioneer, explores the perceptual disruptions of dazzle, its capacity to shock and bewilder, in “Camouflaged Troop-Ship, Boston Harbor.” The poem appeared in The Dial on November 16, 1918, exactly five days after the armistice that ended the war. It begins with a survey of the harbor’s foggy tedium, its ships falling into line as would a troop of soldiers. The ships are indistinct: “A long line of flatness,” with “Masts, one behind another, / Clouding together, / Becoming confused.” [38] And the harbor is unendingly gray: “A mist of gray,” and later “Monotonous gray”; even the smokestacks are “Dull” and the clouds “lusterless” (Lowell, “Troop-Ship,” 403). Lost in this lifeless and monochromatic tableau, individual ships coalesce into a predictable geometry: neatly striated in parallel and perpendicular lines, the masts intersect the decks at right angles so precise that they comprise lines and planes. As if keen to disrupt this relentless orderliness, a single vessel emerges:

And there,

On the starboard quarter,

Thrust out from the vapor-wall of ships:


Against the perpendicular:


In front of the horizontal:

A crenelated edge. (403)

Central to each of these three parallel constructions is a perceptual disruption: an aesthetic antagonist (“Color,” “Obliqueness,” “A crenelated edge”) is at cross-purposes (“from,” “Against,” “In front”) with the harbor’s dreary linearity, an effect heightened by dramatic line breaks. In terms of camouflage taxonomy, the poem pits low-contrast and high-contrast camouflage against one another—with the latter clearly winning.

By reveling in the wonderments of dazzle, Lowell’s verses describe, but also enact, modernist form. The speaker is no doubt stunned by the dazzled ship—the visual chaos of shapes, lines, and angles—but nevertheless attempts to recount and even recreate these perceptual disruptions.

Black spirals over cream-color

Broken at a half-way point.

A slab of black amidships.

At the stern,


Rising from the water,

Curled round and over,

Whorled, scattered,

Drawn upon one another.

Snakes starting from a still ocean,

Writhing over cream-color,

Crashed upon and cut down

By a flat impinging horizon. (403)

Intermingled with the ship’s aggressive geometry are high-contrast color schemes reminiscent of Futurist typography—“Black spirals over cream-color”—and movement that is not only dynamic but violently so: “Broken,” “Rising,” “Curled,” “Whorled, scattered,” “Writhing,” and “Crashed upon and cut down.”[39] The poem’s drama demonstrates that dazzle’s effects are not only martial but modernist, and that dazzle can serve as a heuristic with which to study modernist form.

But in turning to the menaces faced by sailors at sea, the poem rehearses a string of distinctively feminine images: “Drowned hair drifting against mother-of-pearl; / Kelp aprons, / Shredded upon a yellow beach” (403). These eerie seductions, from pre-Raphaelite hair to pearly accents, anticipate the “seagirls wreathed with seaweed” whose songs augur death by drowning in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”[40] The world of sirens and mermaids is familiar to modernists; examples include Prufrock as well as the Siren song of Ulysses and Clarissa Dalloway’s mermaid dress. Each suggests the enchanting menace of (and for) women in maritime environments. For a World War I civilian, of course, the gendering of ships was by no means novel; ships had been assigned feminine pronouns for centuries.[41] But these associations assume pointed and historically specific implications in Lowell’s poem. The ship’s ill omen takes the form of perceptual confusion. The poem’s speaker, at first plainly dazzled by the ship, eventually musters the courage to address it with a jarring onslaught of second-person pronouns:

You hollow into rising water,

You double-turn under the dripped edges of clouds,

You move in a hundred directions,

And keep to a course the eye cannot see.

Your terrible lines

Are swift as the plunge of a kingfisher;

They vanish as one traces them,

They are constantly vanishing,

And yet you swing at anchor in the gray harbor

Waiting for your quota of troops. (Lowell, “Troop-Ship,” 403)

The ship’s misdirections, its habit of “constantly vanishing,” builds toward dismal prophecy: “Men will sail in you, / Netted in whirling paint, / Held like brittle eggs / In an osier basket” (403).[42] The poem casts the soldiers as fragile and infantile, adrift like tiny Moses in his willow raft. The speaker implies that the ship’s sinuous tactics endanger her delicate cargo; she must hold gingerly these “brittle eggs.”

Key to this argument is the ship’s deceptive trajectory. She “keep[s] to a course the eye cannot see,” or operates under the radar of the human senses. And she does so by way of navigational subterfuge, “mov[ing] in a hundred directions” and with lines that “vanish as one traces them.” The ship’s sleight of hand misdirects the speaker’s—and reader’s—gaze. Even the phrase “double-turn” resembles “double-cross” or “double back” in its suggestion of serpentine duplicity and zig-zagging evasion. The visual manipulations suggested by “vanish” or “a course the eye cannot see” comprise a kind of dangerous magic—the same magic, arguably, that left Picasso “spell-bound” and Hurst lost in a “hopeless confusion.” And it’s in these allusions to sorcery and enchantment that we find some clues about dazzle’s ties to gender. As many had already guessed, the magician best equipped to shape martial history was not a camoufleur at all but a camoufleuse.

“A Free Tip for the Army,” The Ogden Standard, December 3, 1917.
Fig. 2. “A Free Tip for the Army,” The Ogden Standard, December 3, 1917.

Dazzling the Recruit: The Women’s Camouflage Corps

As dazzle infiltrated military strategy, it began to pervade the popular imagination, provoking a series of intriguing comparisons to women’s dress and makeup. A 1917 cartoon in an American newspaper features a sketch of a woman applying lipstick in front of a mirror with this caption: “Why don’t some of the armies hire women as camoufleurs, anyhow? They’ve been doing it all their lives. Think of the rouge, the switches and the powder puff. . . . Why, as we gather it, half the art of being an up-to-date young woman is camouflage” (fig. 2).[43] The caption’s blithe tone belies its troubling implications. If “the art” of being a woman requires camouflage, as the cartoon suggests, what would it mean for the military to adopt these arts?

Lieutenant H. Ledyard Towle and the Camouflage Corps, “Hide and Go-Seek-a-Hun,” Vogue, July 1918, 58.
Fig. 3. Lieutenant H. Ledyard Towle and the Camouflage Corps, “Hide and Go-Seek-a-Hun,” Vogue, July 1918, 58.

In fact, the American army had already done exactly that.[44] From the National League for Women’s Service, established in early 1917 in connection with the American Red Cross, came the Camouflage Corps. As journalist Bessie Rowland James would later recount, the Corps was initiated at the behest of its members, “a group of artists, writers, stenographers, school-teachers, débutantes, many sorts of women.”[45] Artist and Lieutenant H. Ledyard Towle trained members in camouflage as well as “drilling, boxing, pistol and rifle shooting” (James, For God, For Country, For Home, 165). But the group’s leadership also consisted of women, including Corporal Anne Furman Goldsmith and Captain Myrta M. Hanford. Outside of the classroom, the Corps studied camouflage on an old estate on the Hudson River, designing a suit that might “harmonize with any scenery and make the wearer practically undiscernible at a distance of twenty feet. The camouflage of the front of the suit matched the trees; the back shaded into the rocks; reversed, the front merged with the grass and the back with ice and snow” (165) (fig. 3). In recounting these activities, James concludes that camouflage, although it required considerable technical skill and training, “was a kind of work women could do” (165). But what seems to have escaped James’s narrative is the possibility that the women were hired for—not despite—their gender.

The military arguably exploited the camoufleuses with a series of unusual publicity stunts. “Perhaps the most spectacular work of the Corps,” James writes, “was the camouflage of the Recruit” (166).  She refers to the construction of a land-locked battleship in New York City’s Union Square in 1917 (fig. 4). The Recruit’s construction was no doubt an awe-inspiring sight—and an unsettling one at that. Imagine for a moment a massive naval battleship rising from a bustling urban nexus like Union Square. As if this project were not sufficiently extraordinary, the Corps upped the ante by dazzling the ship in 1918. “One day at sundown New Yorkers saw the ship a tame, neutral grey. The next morning it wore a wild, fantastic design of many colours” (166). In capturing this remarkable transformation, James personifies the ship—not gendering the ship with feminine pronouns as tradition would suggest, but instead noting that it “wore a wild, fantastic design,” suggesting that the ship has designed and donned its own disguise.

The USS Recruit in Union Square, New York City, 1918.
Fig. 4. The USS Recruit in Union Square, New York City, 1918. Image courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

But there is reason to reconsider the event’s visibility with special scrutiny. “This was a night’s work for the women,” James recalls, “and was done at the request of the navy to further recruiting” (166). Crucially, in noting that the painting took place by night, she omits the painting process and suggests, implicitly, that the ship’s dazzling took place under cover of darkness. Her narrative skips directly to the next day’s unveiling of the dazzled masterpiece. But the archive tells a different story. According to naval photographs, the Corps women painted in the light of day, atop scaffolding and ladders, their bodies elevated and highly visible against the ship’s brightly dazzled background (fig. 5). The subtle dissonance between James’s recollections and the archive raises a key question: what if the primary spectacle were not the ship at all but in fact the painting of the ship? Not the Recruit itself, in other words, but its dazzling?

What James terms “spectacular” may have been exactly that: a spectacle designed to capitalize on the allure of women’s bodies in order to recruit soldiers. The Recruit became a mere backdrop for another dynamic performance, one calculated for the public eye. As James would later suggest, the Corps women—their bodies, their uniforms, their dazzling and dazzled backdrops—were used to recruit men. As The New York Times reported, the Corps “redecorated” the ship, and “made a neat job of it.”[46] And the New York Tribune review echoed these gendered terms: “twenty-four girls . . .  engaged in their initial ship disguising stunt. They were dressed in neat-fitting khaki uniforms, which were soon camouflaged from view by the flying paint.”[47] The article, in highlighting the uniforms, suggests that the camoufleuses and their bodies were as central to the “ship disguising stunt” as the ship itself. It’s also worth noting that the camoufleuses wore khaki: in other words, they donned low-contrast camouflage even as they demonstrated high-contrast camouflage, as if their own bodies were meant to set off the magic of the evanescing vessel.

The Camouflage Corps and the USS Recruit, July 1918.
Fig. 5. The Camouflage Corps and the USS Recruit, July 1918. Image courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

The Union Square performance was one of many. The Camouflage Corps dazzled military equipment in cities across the Eastern seaboard. According to James, “Tanks, ambulances, and trucks were camouflaged at the request of different branches of the Government to encourage recruiting, for wherever the camoufleurs went in their uniforms, spreading their bright paints, a crowd was sure to gather” (For God, For Country, For Home, 166). Such performances, though ostensibly designed to recruit soldiers, were plainly visible to the wider civilian population. It follows, then, that these performances may have implicitly shaped public aesthetics.

What is at first shocking quickly becomes familiar. These performances may have indirectly exposed the public eye to the startling novelty of avant-garde design. The ship’s dazzle, in a sense, would have stunned but also educated the public eye. The women of the Camouflage Corps framed the disruptive aesthetics of dazzle, and by extension avant-garde design, in terms of the perceptual mechanics of women’s fashion and the self-protective measures encoded therein. The camoufleuse, then, may have unwittingly readied the public eye for martial strategies and modern aesthetics.

Dazzle’s Feminine and Feminist Histories

Alon Bement, “‘Camouflage’ for Fat Figures and Faulty Faces,” Washington Post, June 15, 1919.
Fig. 6. Alon Bement, “‘Camouflage’ for Fat Figures and Faulty Faces,” Washington Times, June 15, 1919.

Thanks to public stunts like the Recruit’s dazzling, and coverage in newspapers and magazines, civilians were wise to the logic of dazzle, and may have come to associate the perceptual mechanics of naval camouflage with women’s bodies and dress.[48] Journalists, cartoonists, even advertisers were keen to exploit and profit from these gendered associations. During and after the war, dazzle swept women’s fashion. Many, for instance, touted the slimming and flattering benefits of camouflage. One article written for the Washington Times in 1919 by Alon Bement addresses the cosmetic benefits of camouflage in “‘Camouflage’ for Fat Figures and Faulty Faces” (fig. 6). The article promises to apply “Scientific Laws of Light, Color and Pattern” to “Your Household, Your Clothes and Even Your Features.”[49] He gestures briefly to Thayer’s research before surveying camouflage’s many applications for women. He cites actress Sarah Bernhardt, “a master of all the arts and illusions of camouflage,” and Madame Nazimova, whose “discriminating use of lines can accomplish marvels in deceiving the eye” (Bement, “Faulty Faces,” 26). The gendered language is plain: whereas men apply camouflage’s “Scientific Laws,” women deploy camouflage’s “marvels” and “arts and illusions.” Camouflage’s lexicon of sorcery suggests that men may study the science of camouflage all they like, but women alone are wise to its spells and hexes.

Many noted the irony inherent in camouflaging women’s bodies—an irony confused by the enigmatic tactics of dazzle. An image in the 1919 Winnipeg Evening Tribune features women clad in dazzled bathing suits, their figures difficult to spot against a backdrop of parasols and beach chairs. The caption addresses the conundrum of feminine visibility: “Camouflage is supposed to hide things. Bathing suits seem built to reveal. Yet here are these beach nymphs in paradoxical camouflaged bathing suits” (fig. 7).[50] The caption’s choppy sentences and hasty reversals (“yet” and “paradoxical”) betray the viewer’s unease, perhaps mildly disoriented by the spectacle of hemlines and necklines inching away from the body’s equator. The syntactical about-face, as well as the reference to shadowy capers of nymphs, suggest that dazzled bathing suits are not only working against the compulsion (or social pressure) to reveal; they’re also disguising or encoding the body in novel terms.

“Wars [sic] Effect Felt in Bathing Suits,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, August 16, 1919.
Fig. 7. “Wars [sic] Effect Felt in Bathing Suits,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, August 16, 1919.

But disguising from whom, exactly? In a 1919 illustration for Harper’s Magazine captioned “To Decrease Visibility,” a highly-visible woman in dazzled stockings navigates a crowded beach scene (fig. 8).[51] Even as other beach-going women cluster around two men, the camouflaged woman walks alone. She is seemingly oblivious to the bystanders who look intently at her, perhaps calculating her trajectory. It is telling that her feet point in two different directions as if she is preparing to change course. But her side-eyed engagement with the reader suggests her keen awareness of her visibility—an awareness that unsettles the image’s simple caption. Because dazzle is meant to stun one’s enemy, can we not also read these images on a different level—not exactly as efforts to fly under the radar of the male gaze but rather to confuse or refract its beam? Like a not-so-fun-house mirror, the dazzled body suspends, scrambles, and even returns the voyeur’s gaze.

Building upon these associations between camouflage and women’s dress, wartime journalists framed dazzle in terms of familiar narratives of courtship and sexual pursuit. Plainly shaped by war and nationalism, these narratives often took on predatory and violent subtexts. In such narratives, dazzle is often described in terms of the prey’s “dress” or “decoration,” and functions as a sartorial smokescreen, one that distracts and waylays the advances of a predator. Particularly at sea, Allied naval ships, conventionally gendered with feminine pronouns, were cast as “damsels in distress” who must escape the stalking eye of the German U-boat. These characters are in keeping with what Paul Fussell has described as the war’s “gross dichotomizing,” a pattern that persistently cast enemy soldiers in terms of animalism, gigantism, and grotesque savagery.[52] Revisiting Hurst’s account of dazzle, for instance, we find that alongside his praise for the “resplendent” and “bright-hued” fleet of ships are frank and troubling allusions to sexual pursuit (“Dazzle-Painting,” 93). As he wrote in 1919,

The mission of “dazzle” was so to distort and break up the accepted constructional lines of a vessel that an enemy submarine commander, viewing her through his periscope, should make a false estimate of the true course of his intended victim. If this could be accomplished the U-boat captain would rise, in all probability, in the wrong place and at a disadvantage from whence to discharge his torpedo, thus giving our vessels a better chance of escape. (97, emphasis added)

Here, Hurst imagines the interaction between predator and prey in national as well as gendered terms. The U-boat commander is invariably masculine, and “his intended victim” feminine—an expression especially pointed because “intended,” especially when preceded by the possessive pronoun (“his”), would have suggested “bride-to-be.”

“To Decrease Visibility,” Harper’s Magazine, September 1919.
Fig. 8. “To Decrease Visibility,” Harper’s Magazine, September 1919.

Hurst implicitly casts women as moving and often mercurial targets whose trajectories are nonetheless legible. The analogy, eerily reminiscent of the cuttlefish’s showy pseudomorphs, suggests that both women and dazzled ships bait the predator in visual terms, effectively charting a course for the enemy’s advance—all the while plotting an oblique escape route. In such an analogy, the martial gaze is also a male gaze, one that interrogates visual data for surfaces and depths and assumes that every splash of paint, leafy branch, or wayward hemline might belie the object’s “true course” or circuitous intentions. Dazzle, then, assumes a way of seeing that is plainly predatory—but its logic can be taught by casting the parallel spectacle of women’s sexuality as readable and knowable.

Hurst was not alone in framing dazzle camouflage in terms of sexual predation. In an essay published by the Daughters of the American Revolution in August 1921, American writer Isabel L. Smith describes how World War I camoufleurs used “curious patches” of color to “dazzle or confuse the hostile observer.”[53] These dazzle schemes, she explains, “serve to destroy normal lines and to blur contours by which the seaman has long been accustomed to judge the position of a vessel and the path upon which she is steaming” (Smith, “Camouflage,” 432). Like Hurst, Smith assumes a male eye (“the seaman”) and a feminine ship (“she”). In a verbatim echo of Hurst’s terminology, Smith describes this ship as “his intended victim” (430). But where Hurst’s allusions to gender remain somewhat oblique, Smith offers incontrovertible parallels between dazzle and women’s fashion: “Women know what it means to modify the figure by the cut and color scheme of gowns, and this, in substance, is what the dazzle camoufleurs finally concentrated upon” (432). Even more striking is her description of dazzle’s effects on the enemy: “The U-boat became,” she explains, “a near-sighted, yes, even a groping antagonist, and through the bewilderment thus provoked it was possible for us to get safely across the Atlantic hundreds of ships, thousands of troops, and many millions of dollars’ worth of food and indispensable munitions” (432). Smith’s analogy would suggest that the predator endangers his prey even as his shortsighted gaze is ultimately vulnerable to her sorcery, or tell-tale “bewilderment.” In other words, she tempts and then quickly overwhelms his myopic appetites in order to make her escape. Continuing, Smith’s caricature becomes not only predatory but plainly nefarious. “Maritime camouflage,” she concludes, “brought to light one of the submarine’s weaknesses and played upon it to the undoing of that insidious and sinister type of fighting machine—the German U-boat” (432). Repeatedly framing dazzle’s misdirection in terms of women’s fashion and behavior, Smith suggests that both work to distract and waylay predatory enemies.

These comparisons came to affect popular culture in spectacular ways. Camouflage-inspired balls and dances became fashionable in 1918 and 1919 in cities from Philadelphia and New York to London.[54] Perhaps most extravagant was the Dazzle Camouflage Costume Ball in March 1919, only months after the armistice, hosted by the Chelsea Arts Club at Albert Hall in London. By all accounts, the ball was pure phantasmagoria. One attendee described the masquerade as “brilliant and fantastic.”[55] Another reviewer described the ballroom as a war scene: “like the Grand Fleet with all its warpaint on ready for action.”[56] The Sketch featured on its cover portraits of dazzled attendees and the Illustrated London News printed a two-page spread of the ball’s outlandish and extravagant costumes, from spritely harlequin frocks and Vorticist robes to crude appropriations of indigenous attire (fig. 9).

The Chelsea Arts Club, “Dazzle Balle,” Illustrated London News, March 22, 1919, 414–15.
Fig. 9. The Chelsea Arts Club, “Dazzle Balle,” Illustrated London News, March 22, 1919, 414–15.

But such sartorial effects were not the only source of mayhem: “During the evening a shower of ‘bombs’ in the shape of coloured balloons descended on the devoted heads of the dancers, and added greatly to the hilarity of the occasion” (“‘Dazzle’ Dance,” 415). As if plotting an all-out sensory barrage, the ball’s organizers paired the stunning decor with loud jazz. (Dazzle was sometimes called “jazz painting.”) One attendee, a writer for the Independent, found the effect jarring but apropos: “The jazz bands produced sounds that have the same effect upon the ear as this ‘disruptive coloration’ has upon the eye”—proof that the public was by this point familiar with not only dazzle the concept but also its specific perceptual mechanisms (“Jazz and Dazzle,” 160). The writer, then, assumes a readership familiar with dazzle’s mechanics, and also with modernist form. Moreover, the comparison suggests that these forms are implicitly connected, even parallel. Continuing, the reviewer frames dazzle in terms of avant-garde spectacle:

Who would have thought a dozen years ago, when the Secessionists began to secede and the Cubists 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.’ They dipped into the future far as human eye could see—and then some. . . .  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. (160)

The writer casts modernism as a force, and a destructive one at that. But, crucially, it is a knowable force, and one whose perceptual cunning can be learned and mimicked at sea. In framing this argument, the writer assumes that the passage’s central analogy, the parallels between naval strategy and modernist form, would be legible to readers of the Independent. The central example is telling: the writer could have chosen any Cubist painting to illustrate this particular point. But Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) is a Cubist portrait of a nude woman—the painting scorned by the Salon des Indépendants in Paris and subsequently exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, where it was lovingly compared to an “explosion in a shingle factory.”[57] Perhaps mimicking the inventive chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge, Duchamp splices together a succession of moments in order to depict his subject’s descent, essentially capturing a range of motion in a single painting. With this pointed reference, then, the Independent’s reviewer imagines that a portrait of a nude woman on the move—her trajectory fragmented by the perceptual mechanics of Cubism—could best distract the periscopic eye of the “submerged Hun.” Once again, a woman’s suggested trajectory, or even the simple fact of her mobility, works to misdirect the surveilling gaze of a predator. Perhaps the figure in the painting is nude because, like a naval ship, she is dressed in dazzle and dressed to dazzle. Duchamp, in a sense, has painted the nude’s many pseudomorphs: they distract the eye while she continues her descent. 

Many tried to locate Duchamp’s descending nude. Thanks to the painting’s plain title and its large, legible inscription, explains Michael Leja, spectators treated the painting as a “puzzle” to be solved—a woman to be found (Looking Askance, 223). The American Art News, which reported on the Armory Show for several weeks, baited its readers by proposing a contest: a prize of ten dollars to any reader who could “‘find the lady’” in Duchamp’s painting (223). A week later, the magazine published a selection of the “hundreds” of reader responses they had received (223) (fig. 10). One reader proposed turning the painting upside-down, while another proposed a mystical reading of the nude’s aura. But near the bottom of the page, one response is worth examining closely: “It is a stationary ‘moving’ picture. Every motion that a figure would make, coming down the stairs shown in the lower left hand corner of the picture, has been expressed.”[58]  The writer smartly attributes the painting’s mechanics to the logic of chronophotography or cinema, suggesting that Duchamp has compressed the serial images of Marey or Muybridge into a single frame. But particularly interesting, and key to this argument, is the writer’s name: H. Ledyard Towle of New York City. [59]

“Find the Lady,” American Art News, March 8, 1913.
Fig. 10. “Find the Lady,” American Art News, March 8, 1913.

Towle, remember, would go on to train the camoufleuses of the Camouflage Corps in 1917–18 as they prepared to dazzle naval ships in public spaces. Towle’s participation in “Find the Lady” is fascinating for several reasons. First, he evidently read or even subscribed to American Art News; second, he likely attended the Armory Show in 1913; third, and most striking, he demonstrates an informed appreciation of analytical Cubism. His apt allusion to moving pictures indicates that he was interested in the perceptual mechanics of Cubism four years before he would direct the Camouflage Corps’s public dazzlings. During those years, he evidently became familiar enough with Cubist form to instruct an entire cohort of camoufleuses as they experimented with dazzle. This chain of influences is curiously recursive: civilians and soldiers were exposed to Cubist design thanks to the public performances of the camoufleuses, who in turn had learned about camouflage strategy from Towle—if not a practicing Cubist then certainly an admirer.

What’s more, Towle’s sincere efforts to “Find the Lady” involve implicit connections between avant-garde form and gender—connections that may have informed his work with the camoufleuses. His words, moreover, shed light on the camouflage aesthetics at work in “Nude Descending a Staircase,” and highlight the degree to which these two forms of aesthetic subterfuge overlapped in the public eye. Duchamp’s painting, like the chronophotography it resembles, attempts to track a camoufleuse, false bodies and all, as she distracts her onlookers and makes her escape. To “Find the Lady,” then, is to dwell in bewilderment as the ink dissipates—all for the modest sum of ten dollars.

Duchamp’s painting, and its unusual reception, illustrates the striking confluence of avant-garde form, the male gaze, and the evasive tactics of women. And these eclectic forces may have informed, indirectly, postwar popular and material culture—and here, once again, the Dazzle Ball of 1919 is rich with source material. Following those striking references to Duchamp’s modernism and its dazzling effects at sea, the reviewer proceeds to address women’s fashion directly:

Now, after its brief discursion into the army and navy, [camouflage] is demobilized and returns to the toilet. But in its new and dazzling guise it may cause collisions in the ballroom as it did on the sea. . . . 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. (“Jazz and Dazzle,” 160, emphasis added)

Such a comparison, although familiar by this point, is beset with disquieting implications: if dazzle aims to confuse the German antagonist in order to escape attack, then a dazzled woman seeks to elude her suitor’s (or stalker’s) gaze—to escape some unspoken but menacing advance. By 1919, as this review makes clear, the parallel was well-established to the point of commonplace in the public eye.

Dazzle’s Dystopian Afterlives

The associations between camouflage and women’s dress persisted well beyond World War I, informing one of the twentieth century’s most bracing treatises on the culture of war. In “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940), Virginia Woolf argues that “The defenders are men, the attackers are men. Arms are not given to the Englishwoman either to fight the enemy or to defend herself. She must lie weaponless tonight.”[60] These parallel fears—the threat of violence and the powerlessness of women to confront it—grow in tandem, building to one of the essay’s most chilling passages:

We are equally prisoners tonight—the Englishmen in their planes, the Englishwomen in their beds. But if he stops to think he may be killed; and we too. So let us think for him. Let us try to drag up into consciousness the subconscious Hitlerism that holds us down. It is the desire for aggression; the desire to dominate and enslave. Even in the darkness we can see that made visible. We can see shop windows blazing; and women gazing; painted women; dressed-up women; women with crimson lips and crimson fingernails. (Woolf, “Thoughts on Peace,” 245)

Woolf’s prose is crackling with prosodic energy: the tidy rhyme of “blazing” and “gazing”; chiastic descriptions of gendered costuming; the echoic rhetoric of “let us” and later “we can see”; and sing-song repetitions of “women” and “crimson.” The passage’s vertical axis, its concern with surfaces and depths, encompasses levels of consciousness that might be suppressed or “drag[ged] up” by violence as well as the vast, vertical polarity that separates men airborne in the skies and women supine on the earth. At the same time, the vertical axis could also suggest the material strata of femininity. In excavating these cosmetic layers, these layers of “crimson” on lips and fingernails, Woolf urges us to notice femininity’s material accretions, or, as she had proposed over a decade earlier, the “envelope” each of us “secrete[s]” and dons as part of our “frock consciousness.”[61] But unlike the self-fashioning and freedom implicit in “frock consciousness,” the women in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” are framed and spotlighted in “shop windows,” and to echo Woolf’s account, they are “enslave[d]” in a matrix of consumer culture and patriarchy.[62] 

Primed as we are to think in binary terms about men in uniform and women painted and dressed up, it’s unsurprising that the essay immediately proceeds into a description of camouflage:

A bomb drops. All the windows rattle. The anti-aircraft guns are getting active. Up there on the hill under a net tagged with strips of green and brown stuff to imitate the hues of autumn leaves guns are concealed. Now they all fire at once. (Woolf, “Thoughts on Peace,” 245–46)

The passage thus follows images of women dressing and painting themselves, eerily illuminated in the dark, with the camouflage netting that disguises guns. Words like “imitate,” “hues,” and “concealed” remind us that camouflage once denoted the make-up worn by actors and actresses on stage. What’s more, the final sentence’s additive syntax (“Up there on the hill under a net”) mimics the logic of camouflage by concealing its object, the guns, behind a string of prepositional phrases. Recalling the essay’s memorable opening, which twice contrasts “the Englishmen in their planes, the Englishwomen in their beds,” we can understand more clearly why camouflage would seem to be instrumental to women in wartime. Left “weaponless” and earthbound, and thus unable to fight on modern terms, a woman’s only recourse is disguise.

Although Woolf seldom wrote about camouflage in explicit terms, these allusions suggest that she was at least familiar with dazzle’s perceptual tactics and popular narratives.[63] In juxtaposing these scenes, Woolf tempts us to speculate about the wider cultural backdrop: what if martial strategy could be understood as parallel to, or even colored by, women’s fashion?[64] As we’ve seen already, such a connection was familiar by World War II. When surrealist painter Roland Penrose became one of Britain’s chief camouflage strategists, he enlisted his wife, avant-garde artist and photographer Lee Miller, to model in the nude, clad only in camouflage body paint and netting. “If camouflage could hide Lee’s charms,” he quipped, “it could hide anything.”[65] In training to read camouflaged bodies like Miller’s, soldiers may also have imagined they could decipher femininity itself.

These images cast camouflage as a performance intuitive to women. But perhaps women were and are attuned to the logic of dazzle because they have adapted these tactics in self-preservation. They have learned to exploit the visibility they cannot escape, not only refracting the beam of the male gaze but in fact reflecting it—turning that beam back upon its source. In a sense, the prey reflects the predator’s gaze, as if holding up a mirror. This habit, fraught with menace but also surprising power, recurs throughout Woolf’s writings. As early as A Room of One’s Own (1928), Woolf had considered how such reflection might fuel expansion, empire, even evolution itself:

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown. We should still be scratching the outlines of deer on the remains of mutton bones and bartering flints for sheep-skins or whatever simple ornament took our unsophisticated taste.[66]

Pausing for a moment with this well-worn simile—imagining a woman as a mirror, or perhaps holding up a mirror—perhaps we ought to ask what she’s doing as he regards his magnified likeness in the glass. 

Woolf’s words, and the haunting image of women painting themselves in the darkness, would prove eerily prescient. Even as the phrase dazzle camouflage has mostly disappeared from the contemporary lexicon, the logic of dazzle has recently resurfaced in a dystopian phenomenon termed “CV dazzle,” or computer vision dazzle.[67] In response to widespread government surveillance and growing security databases, artists and activists have launched new initiatives called Deep Face or Anti-Face that deploy make-up and hairstyling to confuse and mislead facial recognition technologies. Artist and designer Adam Harvey of Brooklyn, New York has resurrected dazzle aesthetics in order to dupe the panoptical powers-that-be.[68]

And these tactics, once again, have been claimed by women. The Anti-Surveillance Feminist Poet Hair & Makeup Party invites women to submit photos of themselves dazzled and thus protected from the surveilling gaze.[69] The group sponsors dazzle-inspired parties that recall the Dazzle Ball of 1919. Witness to such an astonishing recurrence, we should remember that reviewer’s prophetic analogy in the Independent: how dazzle allows a woman, like a naval ship, to fly under the radar—or, today, to evade twenty-first century surveilling technologies. As Ana Cecilia Alvarez has explained, “female bodies have grown accustomed to hiding in public.”[70]

Dazzle is the invisibility cloak under which the camoufleuse, past and present, may pursue new mobilities and exercise modern freedoms. As the cuttlefish momentarily distracts the stalking predator, and the naval ship eludes its groping antagonist, so does the modern woman marshal her own visibility into a tactical maneuver and a shrewd act of self-defense. With the help of her dazzling pseudomorphs, in whatever form they might take, the camoufleuse is a free agent. For a woman on the move, dazzle’s sartorial rhetoric is the ultimate camouflage.

From Cubist nudes to CV dazzle, a singular narrative emerges: when a predator is afoot, the prey must adapt its visibility into a weapon. Dazzle allowed an entire generation of soldiers and civilians to recast visibility as a tactical advantage, even a weapon. Dazzle, then, is both fight and flight; it yokes together the fragility of the prey with the wiles of the predator. And such a ploy, tied as it is to avant-garde culture and twentieth-century warfare, is distinctly modern and modernist. It’s in the striking antics of animals that modernist painters and martial strategists first noticed dazzle’s smart bewilderments. But they learned the craft of dazzle, its artful design and cunning sorcery, from women. The camoufleuse—at sea and on the ballroom floor—writes herself an exit strategy and vanishes, a mob of inky accomplices dancing in her wake.


I thank the members of the 2016 ACLA seminar on “Secret Languages and Private Forms,” particularly my co-organizer Patrick Moran, who offered generous and helpful feedback on early drafts of this article. I am also grateful to Amanda Golden for her generous advice and editorial help throughout the writing process.

[1] H. Ledyard Towle, “What the American ‘Camouflage’ Signifies,” New York Times, June 3, 1917, 62.

[2] Siegfried Sassoon, The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 21.

[3] David Jones, In Parenthesis (New York: New York Review Books, 2003), 9, 23, 50, 28.

[4] H. D., “Oread,” in Modernism: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence Rainey (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 442.

[5] This commingling belies the persistent suggestion of violence in the poem’s imperatives: “whirl up,” “splash,” and “hurl.” Digging further into the poem’s mythological indices suggests that this violence is entangled with the nymph’s gender. Recurrently pursued by the likes of Zeus and Hermes, nymphs sought refuge in their natural environments, assuming the form of natural features like trees or streams (H. D., “Oread,” 442).

[6] Celia Marshik, “The Modern(ist) Mackintosh,” Modernism/modernity 19, no. 1 (2012): 43–71, 55.

[7] Elsewhere, Evans wears a “grey suit,” which could mean that it is not a military uniform. But I would maintain that Septimus’s repeated mention of Evans’ clothing recalls the monochromatic uniforms worn by soldiers. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1990), 70.

[8] In the early century, military camouflage relied on large swathes of fabric and netting—a connection that could prove useful in exploring the material details of Rezia’s hat-making. Woolf would return to these associations between camouflage and netting in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” the focus of this article’s final section. 

[9] Patrick Deer, Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 21.

[10] Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Modernist Reconnaissance,” Modernism/modernity 10, no. 2 (2003): 349–80, 356. Once trained in this “reversal of habits,” the photo interpreter might experience the ultimate objective of artificial stereopsis—what Saint-Amour terms “the epiphanic moment of stereo fusion” (364–65).

[11] N. P. Dawson, “The Cuttlefish School of Writers,” Forum 69 (1923), 1174–84, 1175, 1183.

[12] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2012), 173.

[13] Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle: Darwin’s Five-Year Circumnavigation (Santa Barbara, CA: Narrative Press, 2000) 9.

[14] Roger T. Hanlon and John B. Messenger, Cephalopod Behavior (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 130.

[15] Stranger still, the cuttlefish is equipped with a chambered and highly buoyant skeleton called a cuttlebone, and this delicate structure can be ground into a powdery substance used for toothpaste, antacid, and pounce—a powder used to blot ink. In Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby we find a “pounce-box” among Timothy Linkinwater’s belongings—an emblem, perhaps, of his scrupulous habits ([New York: Bantam Books, 1983], 443). The cuttlefish, smartly equipped with both ink and blotting agent, is both writer and editor, or artist and censor. The cuttlebone, explains Peter Beal, can be ground into a “chalky, slightly abrasive powder used by scribes from medieval times until the early nineteenth century.” The powder predated blotting paper because of its highly absorptive quality. The powder sometimes remains encrusted on the finished manuscript: “Traces of this metallic, sparkling substance can still occasionally be seen adhering to the dried ink in old manuscripts” (Peter Beal, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology: 1450–2000 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008], 307).

[16] The cuttlefish’s reputation for authorship might have something to do with the pragmatic value of sepia, a word that once meant cuttlefish. Today, the brownish ink is associated with an earlier era of photography and its nostalgic aesthetics.

[17] Roy R. Behrens, False Colors: Art, Design, and Modern Camouflage (Dysart, IA: Bobolink Books, 2002), 94.

[18] Even the term is bewilderingly dissonant. Also termed baffle camouflage and jazz painting, dazzle camouflage seems counterintuitive, even paradoxical: dazzle is an unlikely qualifier for camouflage because it calls to mind the striking and spectacular—certainly not the muted colors of Sassoon’s wartime landscape or the “gossamer” subtleties described by Jones. Dazzle began its etymological life as a verb, and its synonyms have included daze, stun, and stupefy. I take cues from writers of the early twentieth century, using the word as verb, adjective, and noun—a lexical migration that illustrates the degree to which dazzle had become a cultural phenomenon in the early twentieth century (Oxford English Dictionary, s. v. “dazzle”).

[19] F. T. Marinetti, “The Founding and the Manifesto of Futurism,” in Modernism: An Anthology, 4; Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto 1918,” in Modernism: An Anthology, 481.

[20] Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein (New York: Vintage, 1990), 85.

[21] Picasso may well have had some knowledge of dazzle camouflage. During the war, he wrote to Guillaume Apollinaire with timely tactical advice: “‘I’m going to give you a very good tip for the artillery. Even when painted gray, artillery and cannons are visible to airplanes because they retain their shape. Instead they should be painted very bright colors, bits of red, yellow, green, blue, white like a harlequin’” (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume II: 1907–1917 [New York: Random House, 1996], 349).

[22] This episode, and the influence it implies, has provoked critical debates of the chicken-or-egg variety. For more detail, see Deer, Culture in Camouflage; Hanna Rose Shell, Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography, and the Media of Reconnaissance (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2012); Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); and Behrens, False Colors.

[23] I am particularly indebted to Roy R. Behrens’s extraordinary collection of documents in Ship Shape: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook (Dysart, IA: Bobolink Books, 2012).

[24] The camoufleuse, like the flâneuse, has escaped the attention of historians because her invisibility is fundamental to the cultural work she performs. I thank Lauren Elkin for her illuminating account of the latter, past and present, in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, Tokyo, New York, Venice, and London (London: Chatto and Windus, 2016).

[25] Roger Caillois, The Mask of Medusa, trans. George Ordish (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1964), 78. Camouflage has inspired recent theoretical conversations, many of which are beholden to Caillois’s foundational writings. See Neil Leach, Camouflage (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); and Laura Levin, Performing Ground: Space, Camouflage, and the Art of Blending In (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).

[26] Solomon J. Solomon, Strategic Camouflage (London: John Murray, 1920), 54.

[27] Regina Lee Blaszczyk, The Color Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 99.

[28] Guirand de Scévola persuaded the French army, finally, to abandon the highly visible red kepi, or military cap, and pantaloons. He attributed his ideas to the Cubists who, he claimed, “‘had an aptitude for denaturing any kind of form whatsoever’” (quoted in Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 303.

[29] For this and what follows, see Shell, Hide and Seek, 43–55.

[30] Abbott H. Thayer, Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909).

[31] See Shell, Hide and Seek, 64.

[32] It remains unclear whether the logic of dazzle, particularly its military applications, ought to be attributed to Thayer. Behrens concludes that “Thayer was fully aware of the camouflage function of disruptive coloring, and there are portions of his book that anticipate dazzle painting” (False Colors, 102). Shell notes that although much of Thayer’s work was ineffective, his students were founding voices in the American Camouflage Society in 1916 (see Hide and Seek, 74).

[33] Norman Wilkinson, A Brush with Life (London: Seeley Service and Co, 1969), 78. In his memoir, Wilkinson documents his proposal to hire thirty staff members, twelve of them women: “1 Lady Modeller” and “11 Lady Clerks for colouring of ships” (86). But when he was “ordered to paint fifty transports” with no staff in place, he quickly assembled “twenty girls, all of whom had been selected because they had been to art schools” (88). In one of the memoir’s photographs, Plate 25, women work with tiny models of dazzled ships.

[34] Alon Bement, “Principles Underlying Ship Camouflage,” International Marine Engineering 24, no.1 (1919): 90–93, 91.

[35] See Behrens, Ship Shape, 150–51.

[36] Roy R. Behrens, Camoupedia: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture, and Camouflage (Dysart, IA: Bobolink Books, 2009), 369–70.

[37] Hugh Hurst, “Dazzle-Painting in War Time,” International Studio 68 (1919): 93–100, 93.

[38] Amy Lowell, “Camouflaged Troop-Ship, Boston Harbor,” The Dial 65 (1918): 403.

[39] Such examples recall H. D.’s “Oread,” particularly its lively verbs (“whirl,” “splash, “hurl”), as if the two poets draw from a distinctly Imagist vocabulary.

[40] T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (June 1915): 130–35, 135.

[41] Anne Curzan writes that “[t]he most cited gendered reference to an inanimate object today may be the use of she to refer to ships. This usage was first noted by Ben Jonson in his English Grammar of 1640; he names ships as an exception to the rule that it refers to inanimate objects” (Gender Shifts in the History of English [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003], 83).

[42] With the plaintive accusation “Men will sail in you,” the poem echoes Ezra Pound’s second-person pronouns in “Portrait d’une Femme,” published in 1912: “Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea, / London has swept about you this score years / And bright ships left you this or that in fee” (“Portrait d’une Femme,” in Ripostes of Ezra Pound [London: Stephen Swift and Co., 1912], 17–19). I thank Jessica Burstein for introducing me to this poem.

[43] “A Free Tip for the Army: Why Not Try Women Camoufleurs?,” The Ogden Standard, December 3, 1917, 11.

[44] In a recent article—too recent, I regret, to engage in the body of this essay—Behrens examines a similar array of sources (Bement, Towle, James, and others) and reaches illuminating conclusions about the social and cultural ramifications of women’s involvement in World War I camouflage. He discusses, for instance, the role of women in wartime camouflage in light of broader historical currents such as women’s rights and suffrage and concomitant public anxieties about gender. For more detail, see “Chicanery and Conspicuousness: Social Repercussions of World War I Ship Camouflage,” Universitas: The University of Northern Iowa Journal of Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity 13 (2017–2018). Behrens republished a version of this research on his website, a trove of resources on camouflage design.

[45] Bessie Rowland James, For God, For Country, For Home: The National League for Woman’s Service (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920), 164.

[46] “CAMOUFLAGE THE RECRUIT: Women’s Service Corps Redecorate the Landship in Union Square,” New York Times, July 12, 1918, 15.

[47] “Women Camoufleurs Disguise the Recruit,” New York Tribune, July 12, 1918, 6.

[48] Shell notes, for instance, that the painter “Saint-Gaudens himself likened the practice of self-concealment via camouflage to a woman’s toilette. Both entail acts of deception in anticipation of the possibility of a spectator’s gaze. He recalled installing over his body and his peers ‘bunches of burlaps to produce a texture like their surroundings . . . It would thin out at the side so as to blur the spot into the surroundings, as a girl blends rouge into her face’” (Hide and Seek, 15).

[49] Alon Bement “‘Camouflage’ for Fat Figures and Faulty Faces,” Washington Times, June 15, 1919, 26. I thank Roy Behrens for reproducing this image in Ship Shape.

[50] “Wars [sic] Effect Felt in Bathing Suits,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, August 16, 1919, 21.

[51] “To Decrease Visibility: Why not camouflaged stockings?” Harper’s Magazine, September 1919, 616.

[52] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 75.

[53] Isabel L. Smith, “Camouflage in the United States Navy,” Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine 55, no. 8 (1921): 426–32, 432.

[54] Once again, I am grateful to Roy Behrens for introducing me to the peculiar history of dazzle balls.

[55] “The Great ‘Dazzle’ Dance at the Albert Hall: The Shower of ‘Bomb’ Balloons and Some Typical Costumes,” Illustrated London News, March 22, 1919, 414–15, 415.

[56] “Jazz and Dazzle,” Independent, May 3, 1919, 160.

[57] Michael Leja, Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 223. For a fuller account of public reactions to Duchamp’s “charlatan” stunts, see 221–25.

[58] “The Armory Puzzle,” American Art News, March 8, 1913, 4.

[59] Born in Brooklyn in 1890, Towle became an expert in color theory, teaching at the College of William and Mary and later consulting for automotive companies like General Motors. For more on Towle’s work with color and design, see Blaszczyk’s Color Revolution.

[60] Virginia Woolf, “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1942), 243.

[61] Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3: 1925–30, ed. Anne Olivier Bell (San Diego, CA: Harvest Books, 1981), 12. In a diary entry dated April 27, 1925, Woolf first used the term “frock consciousness”: “people have any number of states of consciousness: & I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness &c. . . . These states are very difficult (obviously I grope for words) but I’m always coming back to it” (12–13).

[62] For this observation, I thank one of the essay’s anonymous readers. In revisiting this passage, I have also found useful Jane Garrity’s discussions of what I think is a similar scene—Woolf’s meditations on the “girl behind the counter” in A Room of One’s Own­. Garrity finds in Woolf’s writings about fashion “the constitutive paradox of modernity for women: that the freedom to shop for fashionable clothes and wear make-up is not an inevitable sign of their equality, but often serves only to coerce them into proscribed social roles” (“Virginia Woolf and Fashion,” in The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts, ed. Maggie Humm [Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010], 209).

[63] In linking material culture, particularly fashion, to avant-garde design, it’s fitting to note Woolf’s ties to the Bloomsbury Group and, in 1913–1919, the Omega Workshops. Omega’s wide-ranging projects and creative collaborations would have afforded her many opportunities to consider the intersections of avant-garde culture with the vivid fashions and chromatic styles of her coterie. I am grateful to one of the essay’s anonymous readers for this suggestion. For fuller accounts of these cultural trends and their aesthetic and sartorial agendas, see Richard Shone, The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); and Christopher Reed, Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004).

[64] The comparison recalls the tactics of the suffrage movement—a conflict fought in the streets of London. Suffragists, too, relied on camouflage, most famously when Lady Constance Lytton assumed elaborate disguises to expose and protest the force-feeding of suffragist prisoners.

[65] Peter Forbes, Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 151.

[66] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957), 35–36.

[67] See Cameron Redon, “CV Dazzle,” 21st Century Digital Art; “CV Dazzle: Camouflage from Face Detection,”; Robinson Meyer, “Anti-Surveillance Camouflage for Your Face,” The Atlantic, July 24, 2014.

[68] See Adam Harvey, “Face to Anti-Face,” New York Times, December 14, 2014.

[69]Anti-Surveillance Feminist Poet Hair and Makeup Party,” Prosthetic Knowledge, February 5, 2014.

[70] Ana Cecilia Alvarez “How to Hide from Big Brother,” Dazed, March 5, 2014.