Friday, March 30, 2012

The Venus of Camouflage

WWI-era 42-cm howitzer, called Big Bertha. Creative Commons.

Anon, illustration of deceptive outfits (Syracuse Herald, 1917)

During World War I, the term "Big Bertha" (Dicke Bertha in German) referred to a massive German cannon, supposedly named "in honor" of Bertha Krupp, the heiress and owner of Krupp, the weapons manufacturer. All this coincided with the campaign for Women's Suffrage in the US, and in news stories throughout the war, it was commonly claimed that camouflage had been the invention of women.

Using cosmetics and illusionistic styles of dress, women were said to be hiding their true attributes, for the purpose of snaring rich husbands. There were dozens of news stories about this, one of which was written by Nixola Greeley-Smith (the granddaughter of Horace Greeley) and appeared in the Syracuse Herald, Tuesday, October 30, 1917, p. 10, in (get this) a section called "A Page for Women and the Home." The article's headline and sub-head read as follows: "CAMOUFLAGE MAKES THE BIG BERTHAS THIN AND ALL OUR GIRLS SOON WILL ADOPT IT: Transforming Fat Girls Into Thin Girls and Thin Girls Into Fascinatingly Plump Girls Only a Small Part of the Sartorial Deception That Will Be Practiced Here When the Latest London Fashion Tricks Reach Us—Even Girl With Ingrowing Chin Will Be Able to Hide Her Defects."
This was followed by an account of how the author, as a young woman, had come to realize the necessity of being a willing practitioner of the art of camouflage. She writes—

I shall never forget my own first initiation into the mysteries of camouflage.

An old lady took me in hand when I was fifteen and decided she must help me to be a siren. She told me the time had come for me to dress like a young woman and bought for me a complete camouflage outfit, including a large "rat" which I was supposed to wear in my hair. Never in my life have I experienced the sense of spiritual nausea that came to me then.

"I'll never wear any of those things," I said to her. "They are disgusting."

"You'll never get married unless you do," replied my matrimonial mentor. But even with this dire threat in my ears I would not submit myself to the arts of the camoufleur.…

I suppose if the art of camouflage reaches a high state of perfection, the thin woman will not have to agonize over milk and eggs and other uninteresting foods, and the fat woman can have all the cream and butter and olive oil she likes. Then if the fashions change or she becomes dissatisfied with her dimensions, she need only send for an expert camoufleur and have him paint a few lines on her clothes to become a dazzling Venus of Camouflage.