Friday, November 25, 2011

Camouflage and Masquerade

Regrettably we don't know the source of this photo. I found it several years ago, and have since misplaced the notes. I remember that it was taken in France (c1918), and that the group of people shown are army camoufleurs, either American or French, or (more likely) a mixture of camouflage artists from both. The odd thing of course is how they are dressed. These are "camouflaged camoufleurs," dressed up for a costume party, a masquerade.The face of one person (standing center, middle row) is painted like an American flag, while another (seated, to the left) looks like the Red Cross. The seconded seated person from the right is wearing an unusually disruptive design (not unlike dazzle ship camouflage). Inevitably, there are themes related to race—on the far right is a seated man in blackface (as was typical of minstrel shows), and in the center on the ground is someone in Native American garb.

During WWI among GIs in France (not just the camoufleurs), it was common to organize masquerades and other costumed events and performances for the white Army "doughboys" (the US Army was not yet integrated, so Black soldiers were in separate units). Recently, I found a book on Entertaining the American Army: The American Army by James W. Evans and Garder L. Harding (Association Press, 1921), in which the costumes are described as follows:

"Many of these garments were contributed by actors and actresses back in the States. Winthrop Ames [a Broadway producer who organized an Over There Theatre League] sent over twenty-six trunks of costumes in June 1918. Here were Indian outfits, period robes, Uncle Sam suits, cowboy rigs, hoopskirts—everything a khaki actor might require.

Appeals for supplies were varied. Negro wigs were unknown in France until the doughboy came, and thousands had to be brought over, enough to camouflage an army corps. Letters like this would come in: 'The Machine Gun Company wants six ukuleles, three bass viols, twenty wigs, lots of grease paint, and six pairs of bones, and the Colonel says the "Y" [YMCA] will send them. We've got the greatest [N-word] show on earth!'" (pp. 171-172).

According to The Chronological History of the Negro in America, by the end of WWI, 367,000 Blacks had been drafted, thus representing 11% of the ground forces who fought for American freedoms in France. Back home in 1918, 58 Blacks were lynched that year, up from 38 before.