Ramblings on the History of the Zouave Jacket

The Zouave Jacket A Zouave Jacket from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

From what I’ve casually read on the internet from several sources, the Zouave’s were north Africans living in Morocco and Algeria. I read that after the French invaded north Africa, some of the fighters offered service (or were offered service) with the French in 1830. One article states the French had such poor skirmishing techniques, left over from the dreaded Jacobian influence, that the royal family hired the Zouave’s to teach the French troops how to be successful (1). I don’t know how authentic this is because it was the only article in several claiming this romanticized beginning. The other articles talked about two units of Zouave auxiliary battalions being formed in north Africa by the French from either conquered or soon to be conquered locals (2)(3)(4). Some articles say these fighters became the French Foreign Legion, ooh la la. I suspect the articles all got their initial research from the same point, as they were very similar in their claims to how the Zouave regiments started. Reports vary but in general, after several successes, more units were formed, several other countries liked what they saw and hired experienced fighters to add to their elite forces and voila! we have awesome fighting forces spread out all over the colonies by the mid-1800s.


What made the Zouaves distinct were two things, their fanatical and fantastical skirmishing skills and their beyond outlandish uniforms. I’ll skip their fighting skills because I’m focusing on the history of the Zouave jacket in women’s fashions.

Some people liken the Zouaves to fighting peacocks (5). I think they were more deadly than peacocks but I suspect the authors were comparing the brilliance of the two and not the fighting prowess. They wore brilliant colors, nice jackets and vests, an enormously long sash, leather boots and greaves, canvas leggings, distinctive baggy pants and, of course, a fez. With a tassel. I was sold on the fez. Actually, some wore turbans. In general, they wore the baggy pants we associate with Lawrence of Arabia, the short jacket we sometimes call a Bolero, and some sort of oriental head wear, the fez being the one preferred by The Doctor. Later, they dropped the oriental headgear in favor of their particular war’s preferred headgear but I’ve always loved the fez (6).

Fezes of any type are cool!

Many women’s fashions have incorporated military styles over the years. In the 1980s we saw epaulettes on all sorts of blouses and tops. No one had need for them but none the less they popped up on shirts, jackets, and dresses for several years. And what about those baggy pants in the late 1970s – early 1980s? Sarouel, Beduoine pants, harem pants, Ali Baba pants, Turkish trousers, balloon pants, genie pants, gypsy pants, drop crotch pants, whatever you called them, if you had any fashion sense at all, you owned a pair. We were following in the footsteps of fashionable women in our past. Our fore mothers had a penchant for dressing military. Besides adopting the Girabaldi shirt as their very own and changing it up with colors and trim, a post I’ll save for another time, we can see the influence of early 1800s Zouave military jacket in Victorian, California Gold Rush, and American Civil War fashions. The Zouave elan continues to influence fashions today. In fact, one site claims the Zig-Zag man is sporting a Zouave hat (5). I think it looks more French fur trapper but, hey, that’s just my opinion. If you want to try your hand at a pair of Sarouel, you can find some great old patterns on Etsy and Ebay or search around for folks who have access to original documents and are offering them up for free. The Steamers Trunk on BlogSpot has a tutorial if you want to make a quick pair of baggy britches (7). As for a decent Zouave jacket you can find a lot of patterns for sale. I found a great page on Pinterest pinned by Shaleza Rouse and another by Beth Chamberlain (8).

A pattern you can draft An orginal pattern to draft for yourself

Back to my original idea of the Zouave jacket in fashion. To be in fashion in the mid-1800s one should own a Zouave influenced jacket. They were simple to make being a short, open front jacket, closed at the neck, with varying pagoda style or slightly tighter sleeves and with simple trim. Many magazines featured fashion plates throughout the years. Godey’s Lady’s Book December issue 1859 talked about how you could avoid the fashion faux pas of appearing cheap because you were wearing a white shirt with colored skirt by adding the simple accessory of a decently trimmed Zouave jacket. Here is the quote.

The crocheted cord is well suited to the Zouave jackets of cloth and velvet, which will be much worn as home-dress the ensuing season, that gallant corps having made a wider name to themselves in the late campaign. It is an improvement on the veste Algerie, and is of the exact sack pattern, close at the throat, and falling away in loose rounded lines over the hips. There is a close vest beneath, with a double point at the waist, and buttoned close to the chin. Sleeves round and flowing. It is trimmed with military-looking braid, set on in Greek patterns.

No later than last summer the white body and colored skirt were considered excessively bad taste, and English ladies who preferred comfort to fashion, and still persisted in this mode of dress, were thought unpardonable old-fashioned. Now they are considered very novel. We are sure that those of our readers who look to economy in that frightfully large item of a lady’s expense, dress, will be glad of the accession to power of the Zouave, as it is an excellent way of using up skirts of dresses whose bodies along have suffered by wear. To those more fortunate ones who have not to consider this, it will also be acceptable as a pretty, becoming, and above all, fashionable mode of dress (9).

Some people say the Bolero jacket is the same as the Zouave. The two terms are certainly interchangeable by many art historians but in my opinion the Bolero is a Spanish men’s dance fashion while the Zouave is definitely a military inspired north African fashion. The Bolero is always short, often ending just below the bust while the Zouave of the 1800s tended towards the longer side. Several articles in women’s fashion magazines talk about the Zouave “swelling over the hips”. In my opinion, the key to telling the difference in a style, despite how some well known art museum label it, is if it is a Zouave it should be buttoned at the very top, open in the front to show the vest with two points, and be longer that middriff, otherwise is it a Bolero. Today, we say Bolero for all short, open front jackets, various period magazines from the 1800s use the terms Bolero and Zouave interchangeably, and many historical sites claim all open front jackets to be Boleros. However you call it though, they are definitely an iconic piece of the Victorian and Civil War era wardrobe and you are always in fashion with a Zouave!

Another Met Classic Another Zouave from the Met

Works Cited

(1) “The Historical Origin of the Zouave Uniform.” Co “K”, 6th Texas Infantry “Alamo Guards” N.p., 07 May 2011. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <http://www.6thtx.org/The%20historical%20origin%20of%20the%20Zouave%20uniform.htm;.

(2) “Origins of the Zouave.” Duryee’s Zouaves. Zouave.org, 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

 (3) “Zouave Uniform.” Civil War @ Smithsonian. The Smithsonian Institute, 15 Mar. 2004. Web. 02 Apr. 2014. <http://www.civilwar.si.edu/soldiering_zuoave.html;.


(4) “A Waltzing Zouave?” The Quintessential Clothes Pen. WordPress Blog, 05 June 2011. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <http://quinnmburgess.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/zouaves-an-exploration/;.

(5) Mallett, H.H. “Fighting Peacocks – The Colourful History of Zouaves |.” MHN – Military History Now. N.p., 27 May 2013. Web. 02 Apr. 2014. <http://militaryhistorynow.com/2013/05/27/fighting-peacocks-the-colourful-history-of-zouaves/;.

(6) Hermann, Marc A., and Shaun C. Grenan. “The 11th New York Volunteer Infantry – First Fire Zouaves.” The 11th New York Volunteer Infantry – First Fire Zouaves. Myrtle Avenue Clothiers, 9 May 2013. Web. 04 Apr. 2014. <http://www.myrtle-avenue.com/firezou/;.

Original sponsor site is http://www.myrtle-avenue.com/

(9) Godey, Louis A. “Godey’s Magazine. V.59 1859 Jul-Dec. – Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library | HathiTrust Digital Library.” Godey’s Magazine. V.59 1859 Jul-Dec. – Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library | HathiTrust Digital Library. Ed. Sarah J. Hale, Mrs. Hathi Trust Digital Library, 07 Dec. 2012. Web. 01 Apr. 2014. <http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015004111244;view=thumb;seq=1;.

Page 884

(7) Kagashi, Miss. “Tutorial Time!: Sirwal (Turkish Trousers).” Multiculturalism for Steampunk. N.p., 10 Jan. 2011. Web. 02 Apr. 2014. <http://thesteamerstrunk.blogspot.com/2011/01/tutorial-time-sirwal-turkish-trousers.html;.

(8) Rouse, Shaleza. “Zouave, basque & other jackets.” War Between the States. Digital image. Pinterest, n.d. Web. <http://www.pinterest.com/shaleza/war-bwt-states-zouave-basque-other-jackets/;.

Chamberlain, Beth.”1860s Jackets”. Digital Image. Pinterest, n.d. Web. &lt.;http://www.pinterest.com/bookworm1860/1860s-jackets/;.

5 thoughts on “Ramblings on the History of the Zouave Jacket”

    1. Well, if you hadn’t of been such a stickler for authenticity, I don’t think I would have taken the path I did. I learned to research because you made me proud to be part of St. Albans. Well, that, and I never wanted to be the butt of the Philosopher’s Squirrel criticisms of enactors who couldn’t take the time to even finish their seams correctly. Quelle horreur!

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