We met vet William Belk at the K mart, stocking up on provisions. His Army-issue two-piece crouched ready to stalk the urban jungle. But closer inspection turned up some nonregulation details. Was this uniform with the program–or on some kind of infiltration mission? Our Fashion Intelligence unit undertook a thorough investigation.

The official story begins with a standard camouflage suit, the sort that made a brief foray into the Pacific theater under Supreme Commander Eisenhower then got mothballed until muggier conflicts.

In combat, camo, like a quaff of magic potion, is supposed to render the user invisible. Encumbered by neither the traditional discipline-happy snug fit nor the power-hungry posturing of most military getups, the camo suit pursues its anonymous creep through the bush even after clearing the foliage. While star-spangled dress blues honor the military institution, Rorschach-blotted fatigues nod to the gritty individuals who made it out alive.

Post-retreat, camo gear has completed tours as MIA-sympathy garb, gang colors, revisionist Rambo splatter-wear, and weekend duck-hunting dress up.

Belk accessorizes his two-tone set with a world traveler’s booty of lucky charms, including American Indian turquoise rings, African beads, an Eisenhower silver dollar belt, and cowboy boots. In her book Functions of Dress, Penny Storm notes that amulets (adornment magically endowed to protect) and totems (group badges) are all the rage during trying times, such as war. Just as the blobs of khaki and olive drab promise safety from enemy fire, snakes, and jungle rot far beyond the capacity of reversible cotton twill, our soldier’s flimsy armor is reinforced with additional symbols of strength. His pan-African cap, a leather kufi, is studded with pledges of allegiance–to a continent, a labor union, and, for good measure, luck. His defensive Fashion Statement? “Don’t shoot!”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.