Most of us know the ancient story of Cain and Abel—though brothers, Cain could not stand that God favored Abel’s sacrifices, so he killed him out of jealousy. It’s a tale of the first murder; the first lust for blood in the heart of man.
Since the first men discovered they could kill each other, they have been doing so. They probably started by using their hands; then they started using their tools, such as spears and knives. At first, they tried to protect themselves using their everyday clothing; animal skins, padded cloth, and even pieces of wood were woven into the clothes of warriors.
Yet as weaponry advanced, so did protection against it. When spears and swords made of bronze began to appear, so did armor and shields fashioned out of the hard, brittle metal. Crude and simple at first, these armors soon took interesting shapes—different cultures began to take an interest in the look of their warriors. There was also the need to identify between friendly and enemy soldiers on the field of battle. This meant that some “uniformity” was needed in the look of soldiers, lest they be mistaken for enemies.
This gave rise to the “smith”—a special craftsman whose art involved all things metal. In ancient times, the smiths of each town competed, and sometimes collaborated, to create horseshoes, cookware, nails, tools, and of course, weapons and armor. Over time these smiths discovered new materials, like iron and steel, and thus produced increasingly stronger and more versatile designs.
Eventually it was discovered that the shape, not only the material, influenced the quality and amount of protection an armor offered. This led to interesting designs like scale and lamellar armor, which were made up of small plates, or “scales,” of metal woven in an overlapping pattern like snakeskin. This allowed for more flexible movement than simple plate armor, which was just a few solid plates of steel, bronze, or other metal welded or bolted together to fit a human torso. Lighter designs slowly became more common as smiths found more ways to pack extra protection into a flexible pattern.
Despite this, for a time long after it was practical, people continued to wear heavier designs as a matter of style. In Europe and Japan, armor took on a greater significance than just protection and military identification; it became a sign of one’s social class. In Europe, the Knight was a position of honor and commanded respect; it set one apart from the common worker and soldier. Knights wore fearsome-looking, complicated, and heavy plate designs. In Japan, it was the Samurai who were the elite class of warrior, and wearing the robes, armor, or swords of the Samurai was usually an indication that a man was a landowner and a winner of many honors for his family.
But ancient armor, even the expensive and class-defining, was not to last. These armors, designed primarily to deflect sword, spear, and arrow attacks, were no match for bullets, so armor quickly fell out of widespread use as armies carrying musket weapons became commonplace in the early 1700s.
Though a few attempts were made to revitalize the use of armor in militaries around the world, truly practical bullet-resistant armor remained out of reach. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the use and styles of armor experienced a resurgence.
In the early 1980s, the United States began using the PASGT helmet and vest, which were made from a new type of synthetic fiber branded Kevlar. This substance absorbs impacts at a much higher threshold than most metals, making it ideal for the production of personal protective armor. Clothes with a normal appearance can also incorporate Kevlar, making personal protection available to almost anyone, anonymously.
With these advances, modern armor is once again becoming interwoven with fashion (if you’ll pardon the pun). In sports, where appearances and team colors are always important, styled armor protects players from balls, sticks, and each other. This protective gear, while matching each team’s unique colors and style, still looks remarkably similar to ancient battle armors—take the Mizuno “Samurai G3” armor for example, which covers the chest and groin, and comes complete with shoulder pauldrons. Their “Samurai” helmet, made from steel and composite plastics, even resembles ancient Greek Corinthian helmets, which also covered the face and part of the neck. Armors like this, unique to each sport they’re designed for, continue to become lighter, stronger, and less expensive.
Interestingly, along with the development of lightweight fibrous armors, designers have created huge, heavy powered exoskeletons, which are like larger-than-life manned robots (a la Gundam Wing). There are several in existence already, such as the Hybrid Assisted Limb (HAL) developed by (brace yourself for this one) Cyberdyne Systems. While most development on exoskeletons is currently focused on helping the disabled and injured recover their movement ability, the US military continues to test and develop exoskeletons for combat use.
Armor has come a long way, and has the unique trait of being both incredibly useful and a statement of fashion—which is why, to us, armor is Great Design.
- Written by Alex Riegelmann for GreatDesign.com