Saturday, November 26, 2011

Blending in by standing out

Back before our time towards the end of the 19th Century, military uniforms were traditionally brightly coloured. (Think bright red jackets worn by horsemen charging across green fields with their muskets at the ready.)

These distinctive forms of uniform had a number of strategic purposes: it allowed generals (or whoever was in charge) to see at a glance where their own troops were, it stopped soldiers from unintentionally slaying one of their own, and in certain cases where a particular regiment had a fearsome reputation, the mere sight of their distinctive colours could be enough to send terror through the enemy, forcing a retreat. (See an interesting history of military camouflage clothing, here.)

However time marched on, military technology improved, and with the development of weapons with longer ranges and greater accuracy (e.g. rifles, machine guns, grenades, missiles) it was not advantageous to signpost to the enemy exactly where you were.

So, what we now think of as regular army dress (khaki and camouflage) was developed as a way of disguising personnel in the field. The mottled colouration of garments is designed to blend with the natural background and it is available in a variety of colourways to blend with different environments.

However one instance where it would have the opposite effect is if you were to wear full camouflage gear and walk through a busy urban area. In fact, far from blending in, it would probably rouse a great deal of suspicion.

It is one of the ironies of the present day that one of the best ways to blend in, in almost any circumstance, is to don a garment which was originally designed to make you stand out - the high-visibility fluoro vest.

Fluorescent clothing was originally a military development (during World War II) designed to protect soldiers from unintentional friendly fire. Now, high-visibility clothing is worn by everyone from post delivery workers to road crew, cyclists to removalists.  If you want to look like you have an 'official' reason to be somewhere, put on a fluoro vest and you can walk around unaccosted.

In an article in The Guardian in 2005, Jon Ronson examined this phenomenon:
"So maybe ubiquity is to blame. Or perhaps, as dazzling as high-visibility clothing is, even more compelling is the public's desire not to notice those people who scurry around at our feet, fixing holes, mending tracks, cleaning up after us. We trust them and we don't want to think about them. This is how Bryan Ferry's son Otis and the other fox hunting aficionados got into the House of Commons to disrupt a debate last year. They put on fluorescent jackets and told the first policeman they met that they were "going to inspect the electrics". The policeman shrugged and waved them on.
The surveillance specialist Peter Jenkins - who teaches private investigators how to follow people without being spotted - is a fan of the fluorescent jacket, too. He says that if you're observing a target in a rural environment, use hedges and ditches and trees. But if you want to be invisible in a city, just put on a fluorescent jacket and sit in the passenger seat of a transit van, or queue up at a telephone box. (Remember to turn off your mobile phone first.)"
I drove past a neighbour's house a few days ago where two guys wearing high-vis tops were filling an unmarked truck with furniture and effects from the house. They (the neighbours) may have actually been being robbed, but the wearing of the high-vis clothing reassured me that a legitimate house move was taking place.

But was this a fair assumption?

According to an item on the BBC website, thieves just this month targeted homes in an English housing estate while clean-up from a flood was occurring:
"Walsall Council leader Mike Bird said thieves had been spotted wearing high-visibility vests to blend in with council workers helping with the clear up."
We rarely give a second glance to 'fluoro-collar workers'. Add an ID on a lanyard round their necks and we'd never question their legitimacy. 

But the flip side of this, is that we also don't notice those workers. They are, in fact, rendered invisible by their visibility and we don't necessarily see them as individuals doing a valued job.

UK photographer, Stephen Gill explored this concept in his 2005 book and exhibition, Invisible which contained photographs of all those people who, by the wearing of high-visibility clothing were rendered invisible to the general public. He was inspired by his own experience as a photographer. He had discovered that by wearing a fluoro vest he drew very little attention to himself when carrying a camera, far less than if he wasn't wearing one.

Do you notice the 'fluoro-collar' workers? Is it time for a new form of high-visibility?


Frogdancer said...

A while ago we had a flasher come into the school and hide in the girls toilets. He walked through the school to get there using one of those vests. We're doing a lot of building and so people assumed he was one of the workmen.
He didn't harm anyone, just scared the wits out of a class of girls... but we're all very much more conscious of security since then.

Mary said...

I'm thinking I should invest in a fluoro vest for the photography stuff I do on the street.

Nanu said...

I certainly notice them here at Rhue. I'm there instantly to find out what they're doing. But, perhaps that's because we're such a tiny place we feel we know everything that's going on and so feel we should find out if we don't. I can understand that bigger places can be different but even so, when we lived in bigger places I would still ask what they were up to if it was near our house. Perhaps I'm just nosey. As to school, when I worked in one, we questioned everyone and checked it out. Mostly it was bone fide but sometimes not so it was always worth doing.