Sunday, October 27, 2013

French Camouflage and Criminals

WWI French camoufleurs wearing hooded cagoule outfits
In an earlier post, we reproduced various images of French camoufleurs dressed in paint-streaked hooded outfits, the term for which was cagoule. These were adopted early in World War I by artists in the French infantry, to prevent themselves from being seen by aerial observers as they manned field artillery. Above is the cover of a French magazine (dated June 5, 1915) in which soldiers are wearing uniforms that look eerily like a mottled variation on the sinister ceremonial hoods of the American Ku Klux Klan. At the time, the French public was disturbed by this radical change of attire. This was described thirty years ago by art historian Elizabeth Louise Kahn in The Neglected Majority: "Les Camoufleurs," Art History, and World War I (University Press of America, 1984)—

Hidden beneath camouflaged cagoules…was a ghoulish image of the modern soldier, whose finely fitted and brilliant red and blue clothing was replaced by an amorphous costume of drab greens and browns that turned the individual into a frightening form.

Later on the same page, she mentions that one of the reasons for the initial disdain for camouflage was that "the very term camouflage held a devious and unseedy [sic] meaning for French readers of popular literature…" Prior to the founding of the first camouflage unit, it "was a word used to describe evil criminals who lurked about city streets and hid themselves from the police" (p. 148).

We were reminded of this when recently we ran across various images from French popular literature and film, before and during WWI, of a fictitious criminal named Fantomas. Created in 1911 by French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, the character was central to more than forty crime novels. The popularity of the books was amplified by various adaptations for film, television and comic books.

French crime character Fantomas
I mention this because in some of the images (such as those posted here), this crime character has an uncanny resemblance to a WWI hooded camoufleur. If Fantomas was on the minds of the French public at the outset of the war, no wonder they viewed with suspicion the cagoules (the "hoodies") of the camoufleurs.

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