Ramblings on the History of the Bolero Jacket

1863 Bolero from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Off we go into the hazy grey world of vague historical fashion influenced by who knows what and no one remembers exactly why, where everyone’s opinion is just that, an opinion. I hold no more authority than anyone else but I’ve done a little digging and you can look at my resources then decide for yourself. Today’s feature will be on the bolero jacket. What is a bolero jacket and how does it differ from the Zouave? The terms today, as well in the past, are completely interchangeable. Who cares? Only the extreme fashion snob or historian give a rat’s patootie. There is actually a difference, only mostly because the bolero became redefined in the mid-20th century. Before then, fashion plates almost never show a what we call a bolero but instead show a Zouave and call it a bolero. I’m putting on my fashion snob hat and will help you see the subtle differences. For a little back history, I did a brief post on the Zouave early in the year here .

In a nutshell, the similarities are they are both short, typically open fronted, often collarless jackets worn from the mid-19th century forward. The Zouave was influenced by military uniform, the bolero by a Spanish dance influenced by bull fighting. They are so close in style, you can legitimately call one by the other name. According the November 14, 1892 article in the Daily News, “The Zouave is as great a favourite as it has been for some seasons, and though it varies in form—being sometimes a bolero, sometimes a toreador, and sometimes a cross between an Eton jacket and a Zouave.” Probably the most distinct defining feature today is the bolero doesn’t typically close at the neck like the Zouave. That’s it. In my opinion, even though fashion plates and articles will call same thing by both names in the same sentence, the main distinguishing features of the bolero jacket are that it is very short and is open fronted. You could, if you were splitting hairs and demanding more definition, say the Zouave is generally waist length, close fitting, and closed at the neck and open at the waist, where as the bolero is generally straight on the center front line, is cropped right below the bust, and doesn’t close at all. But who’s the expert? As far as I could find, other than Cummings and Cunningtons’ Dictionary of Fashion of History, there is no definitive definition of the two styles. The jackets came into fashion at the same time, in the mid-1800s and both have been in style, one way or another, ever since. Today, you’ll here “bolero” more than you will “Zouave” and probably even more so you’ll hear “shrug”. No one really makes a distinction, however.

Influenced by Spanish styles and modified heavily over the years, the bolero jacket is still a mainstay of fashion today. It is typically flattering to all body types. The cropped hem emphasizes the waist by showing it off while optional padding at the shoulders increases this effect by adding bulk to the top line. It can be made of a variety of materials including cotton, silk, velvet, leather, fur, and various fluffy fringed fabric. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a bolero is “A short jacket, coming barely to the waist; worn by men in Spain; applied to a similar garment worn by women elsewhere, usually over a blouse or bodice.”

Here are some examples of bolero jackets:

From the National Trust Collections:
1859-1861 plastic, silk bolero
1859-1861 plastic, silk satin Bolero (http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/709702)

From the New Zealand National Library:
New Zealand Observer, Volume XVI, Issue 962, 5 June 1897, Page 14
New Zealand, Observer, Volume XVI, Issue 962, 5 June 1897, Page 14.

From the McCord Museum:
1845-1855 Mi'kmaq wool cloth
1845-1855 Mi’kmaq wool cloth, glazed cotton, silk ribbon, metal brooch, metal beads, glass beads, cotton thread jacket (http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/collection/artifacts/M8371.1)

From the Metropolitan Museum:
1937 Balenciaga French silk and wool beaded bolero
1937 Balenciaga French silk and wool beaded bolero.

late 19th century Albanian bolero
late 19th-century Albanian bolero.

And just for fun, because I love Old Sacramento and want to promote their efforts, a picture from their collection featuring a Zouave jacket.

From the Old Sacramento Living History Museum:
Civil War silk Zouave
Civil War silk Zouave.

It is very hard to find actual 19th century fashion plates of a bolero. I’ve been able to find some photos of just the item itself in collections or at auction but they are usually from eastern Europe and not representative of Victorian or Civil War era pieces. To be frank, the short jacket may have been called a bolero in the 19th century but it didn’t become a fashion rage until the early 1900s.

While the Zouave was extremely popular in the late 1800’s, and may have been called a bolero, it wasn’t until the 1930’s that it really took off in fashion. It looks nice in so many situations, fashion designers couldn’t leave it alone. The article from the Pittsburgh Press Dec 20, 1937 “Spanish Influence Rules Fashion” by Betty Byron talks about “exactly the right thing to wear” being a dress of dead black, a Bolero jacket of chalk white and a rich crimson sash swathing the waist. The contrast was a startling combination. The Bolero was brought back into fashion in the mid-1900s in part by the designer Cristobal Balenciaga. Born in 1895 in the Zouave region of Spain he watched his mother craft garments for wealthy ladies. He became one of the premier designers in the 1940s. He is credited with adding grace into women’s fashions and his collections were heavily influenced by the Spanish Romanticism era. Besides helping bring back the bolero jacket, Balenciaga created the balloon jacket, but I’m not diving off into that fashion statement. I think cocoon and balloon influenced clothing doesn’t work well for all body types. Frankly, I’m not a fan of either. But enough of that opinion and back to my previous commentary. This blog post by The Quintessential Clothes Pin (one of my favorite blogs) has a nice article on more modern bolero jackets (http://quinnmburgess.wordpress.com/tag/bolero-jackets/).

So, now we’ve investigated the Zouave and the bolero, what else is out there in the ambiguous world of jacket fashion? In my reading about these two jacket styles, I’ve found cross references to the shrug, Eton, Señorita, brassiere, toreador, cardigan, and wrap. They are all modern and all stemmed from the initial short ladies jacket brought into popularity in the bustle dress period. Today, most everyone calls any short jacket a bolero or a shrug. Regardless, it’s a fashion statement which has stood the test of time.

And there you have it, my rambling post on the history of the bolero jacket. Feel free to comment and post links to additional historical references.


Here’s an extra bit from the Dictionary of Fashion History by Valerie Cumming, C.W. Cunnington, P. Cunnington about similar styles,

“Señorita” from the 1860s, “A short muslin jacket shaped like a bolero, with elbow sleeves, worn over a dinner dress.” and “Brassiere, bra” from the late 1400s, “The French term for short jacket, similar to a bolero, usually of black silk or velvet and worn as an undergarment, but partially visible.” and then the definition for “Bolero” from 1853 onwards, “A loose-fitting jacket with Zouaves cut in points and fringed. Inspired by Spanish styles of dress as a tribute to the Empress Eugénie of France (1826-1920) who was Spanish. Revived in the 1890s and then made very short without Zouaves, the fronts curved away just above waist-level. Some had narrow revers peaked up over the shoulders and came with or without sleeves. A popular style intermittently throughout the 20th century, especially for young women, often worn unfastened and sometimes sleeveless.”

“Bolero and Zouave Jackets of the Mid-19th Century.” The Quintessential Clothes Pen. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2014.

Cumming, Valerie, C. Willett Cunnington, Phillis Cunnington, Charles Relly Beard, and C. Willett Cunnington. The Dictionary of Fashion History. Oxford: Berg, 2010. Print.

“Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” Cristobal Balenciaga (1895–972). N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2014.

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Bolero.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Bolero. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2014.

“Past Exhibitions –Boleros Y Mantillas, Icons of Spanish Fashion in the Meadows Collection February 4 –May 27, 2007.” Meadows Museum of Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2014.

“Spanish Influence Rules Fashion.” The Pittsburgh Press – Google News Archive Search. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2014.

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