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Camelflage Took Over and You Never Even Noticed

Meet the anonymous, ephemeral bicoastal uniform.

Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

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Some fashion trends creep up on you the same way the proverbial frog feels in a slowly boiling pot of water: You don’t notice until it’s too late. It happened to me when I suddenly realized that I was seeing a single outfit everywhere, a combination as simple as it was formulaic. Just take one long camel coat and layer it over a white, black, or gray T-shirt and light, ideally worn-in jeans. Finish with a pair of beaten-up plain sneakers: Converse or white Adidas, pick one.

When I pointed it out on Twitter, the look was deemed “camelflage,” which seems apt for its unexpected omnipresence. Camelflage popped up in early spring in New York City, but it thrives in Los Angeles, where it’s viable for a longer part of the year. It’s not limited to a particular climate or even gender. The Sartorialist has documented it; Sienna Miller, Nicky Hilton, and Karlie Kloss are all fans. Kanye wore it for a GQ photo shoot. One morning near my apartment, I saw two camel-coated figures, one male and one female, making out, their bodies entwined into one contorted pillar of tan and denim.

Like the color gray, camelflage might be popular because it blends into any situation or environment, at least for the moment. Not only can the outer layer be removed in case of unexpected warmth (thanks, climate change), but the outfit is equally suitable for a variety of social occasions as well, both high and low.

The coat has a formal air, arriving from our collective Mad Men hangover. It’s a “timeless” “classic” of the archetypal 1960s Manhattan commuter, redolent of WASPy taste and money. Yet the whole outfit is cut with a very Californian emphasis on slouchy comfort and informality, not to mention a certain sunny wholesomeness so popular in bowl-oriented restaurants and on Instagram. It’s the fashion equivalent of the mullet: polished and prim on the outside, party underneath.

Camelflage currently occupies that trend sweet spot, not quite mainstream enough to look overdone or cliché (wait until fall), and yet easily accessible at multiple price points (an H&M camel coat is available for as little as $50). What differentiates luxury camelflage is not the overall aesthetic, but the details: the quality of the camel fabric, the presence of selvedge denim, and the sneakers’ degree of self-conscious austerity.

Though it’s meant to blend in, to look good without attracting undue attention from afar, there’s a mania underneath camelflage’s studied casualness. It’s a little too formulaic to pass as not really trying. In the end, camelflage is not just an outfit, but an attitude that must be consciously maintained, kept crisp and clean along with the clothes. It must be just messy enough; too much and the pose is ruined. The chillness ends up not being very chill at all.

I have to admit I, too, own a camel coat. It was given to me by my grandfather, who lived in a different Brooklyn than I do, the Italian-American Brooklyn of the 1930s, in which his family members sold fruit and cobbled shoes and made wine out of the grapes growing on the trellis in the back of their house. His late cousin became a menswear designer in the ‘60s. When I look at the coat, with its heavy chain-link hanger loop and silk lining, it’s that scene I think back to, with a nostalgia that doesn’t belong to me.

I’ve almost never worn the coat out. I appreciate the history it holds for me, but I’m not sure I have much of a claim to it. The coat is intimidating because it feels serious rather than relaxed, symbolic of a maturity that I’ve thus far avoided. My grandfather had already retired from a World War II career in the Navy when he bought the coat, traveling the world consulting on radar technology before settling down to run a miniature golf course in upstate New York. For my part, I hang out in cafés all day and type on my laptop. I do not own a home.

Beyond the discrepancy in adulthood, I’m not sure I want that particular garment associated with the camelflage proliferating everywhere, the anonymous bicoastal uniform that speaks more to the ephemeral tastes of 2017 than any particular identity or history. Maybe I’ll feel like wearing the coat when it’s unfashionable again.