Stealth Wear © Adam Harvey
Personal camouflage dates back to World War I where the idea was to remain completely unseen. It was during the Viet Nam War that military and camouflage patterned (camo) clothing became a statement, sometimes a statement of protest, sometimes a statement of pride in service. Not so long after that war, those same camo clothes became the symbol of homeless veterans who could not afford clothing other than what had been issued them.
In the late '80s and especially into the '90s, with the rise of private militias, and the smashing success of Gulf War I, camo clothing had a fashion heyday. Whether in support of the returning victorious warriors, or as a statement that you too were a badass, camo was in. One could even find women's underwear sporting a bright orange "camo pattern".
Also in the '90s, military researchers began making significant advances beyond simple camouflage. They were working on a real-life "cloak of invisibility". In a far more pro-military environment than in previous decades, the military was eager to show off as much of their new tech as was possible, given security constraints. Some of the technology revealed, however, has gotten the attention of many otherwise apathetic citizens. Watching a drone strike in Iraq may be amusing to some, but when the government starts making noises about drones in U.S. skies, that news tends to be received with less enthusiasm. Interesting to note, the same surveillance devices available to the drone program have been available to police helicopters since shortly after their military deployment.
Follow up the news of the possibility of drones over the U.S. with news that the government has been prying into the electronic affairs of everyday Americans for years, and the atmosphere is ripe for the return of "camouflage clothing"!
Unlike the simple squiggles in green and brown of the earlier age, which was only ever meant to confuse visually, the new wave of "stealth wear" runs apace with the new threats of a society under surveillance.
According to a New York Times article, by Jenna Wortham, "Stealth wear aims to make a tech statement." And that statement is "Eyes off, Big Brother".
The gear ranges from passive, heat suppressing hoodies, to keep those drones from tracking your heat signature, to active devices which may, for instance, overdrive the optical chip in a nearby camera, such as the one utilized in Google Glass, leaving only a washed out blur.
What will determine whether or not this new type of wearable tech is as enduring as green camo cargo pants, or just an electronic flash, like LED neckties, will be its practicality and, of course, wearability.
Looking at heat suppressing clothing as one example, there are hurdles to overcome. The current version appears to cover only the head and shoulders. Very likely, this prevents the wearer from suffering from heat stroke. If your entire body is covered in heat retaining material so it can't be seen by heat sensors, no heat is leaving your body, and that becomes problematic. By creating a garment that covers only the wearer's head and shoulders, the designers have made the decision to attract customers who wish to "make a statement" in protest of overhead surveillance, rather than a practical anti-sensor suit. The utility of the piece may extend to being used as rain gear, but that's about it.
With ground level cameras far more ubiquitous than theoretical drones, though, active electronic fashion will likely outlast its passive cousin. To date, the sensor chips used in digital cameras are sensitive to light frequencies beyond our visual spectrum. The National Institute of Informatics in Japan has developed a visor with embedded infrared LEDs, whose light isn’t visible to the wearer, but will overdrive an optical chip in a camera. Such devices incorporated into baseball caps may one day be quite popular, since they are functional and utilitarian.
Clothing is meant to protect the wearer. High Fashion is meant to make a statement, and fashionable clothing an impression. The people who are most interested in, and will have the greatest need for stealth wear are not "regular folks", nor are they people who follow high fashion. When stealth wear makes its way into the fashion of business men and women, or into the street fashions for hoods, it will be as enduring as the technology it is meant to thwart.