by Laurie Nienhaus
While the events and thinking of an era tremendously influence the course of fashion, there are times when one seemingly small fragment of the whole picture so captures the imagination that it begins to steer its own course. This is true of the Zouave (pronounced zoo-av) jacket, first worn by women as a show of patriotism, but quickly gaining in popularity until it became a staple wardrobe item of the antebellum and Civil War era woman.
Zouaves began as Algerian and Moroccan volunteer units in the French army, best known as the French Foreign Legion. Their reputations as tough daredevils appealed to the French, and over time Zouave units became increasingly comprised of native French. These men wore a variation of the original Zouave uniform – a sleeveless vest, very baggy trousers, a long woolen sash, and a tassel attached to either a turban or hat.
Zouaves did not capture the attention of the American public until the Crimean War (1856-1858). This was the first war to be photographed and widely reported in European and American newspapers and periodicals. It was then that America caught its first glimpse of the dashing and heroic Zouave.
However, it was Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, friend of President Lincoln, who was responsible for the popularity of American Zouave units and, undoubtedly, of the Zouave jacket. In 1857, a chance encounter with a veteran of the French Zouaves inspired the charismatic Ellsworth to form an American unit in Chicago, the United States Zouave Cadets. Within three years these men were considered to be the finest militia unit in the Midwest.
Taking his idea even further, Ellsworth began a six-week tour with fifty of his best men in the summer of 1860. The purpose of this highly successful and publicized tour was to challenge the state militias of 12 states. The Zouaves’ exotic dress created a sensation at each stop of their tour, and as they humbled each of their competitors with their superbly choreographed exhibitions, they also awed thousands of spectators. All of this quickly brought wide acclaim to Ellsworth, and what came to be known as the Zouave craze began sweeping the north.
In short time, American Zouave companies began springing up around the country, in both the north and the south. When Ellsworth was suddenly killed on March 24, 1861, as he and his men helped seize Alexandria, Virginia, “Avenge Ellsworth” became the northern battle cry, and the popularity of the Zouaves increased even further, as did women’s interest in the Zouave jacket.
Women’s Zouave jackets were a variation of the bolero jacket, a short, snugly fitting jacket usually worn open. Later, a style that joined at the neckline became popular, as did a variation with a pointed back. Pagoda sleeves – wider at the elbow and three quarters in length distinguished the Zouave jacket through most of its popularity.
These jackets were originally made of fine black wool trimmed with red braid. Lined with black silk or cotton, they were almost exclusively trimmed with black as the style progressed – most often a soutache braid applied in intricate loops, swirls, and bands in imitation of military motifs.
It wasn't long before the style soon allowed for a variety of color and fabric combinations, making Zouave jackets the accessory that bent the fashion rule requiring a bodice and skirt be of the same fabric. Young women, especially, began choosing fabrics that complemented rather than matched their bodices, shirts, and skirts. While a Zouave jacket could be worn inside, they were most suitable for outdoor wear, such as for walking dresses and riding habits.
By 1863, the popularity of the Zouave jacket began to fade as styles with more elaborate back silhouettes, utilizing peplums, tails, and basques, began to be seen. In various places throughout the country, they enjoyed a brief resurgence in 1883, and again in 1892.
The basic style is very simple and attractive, lending it a rather timeless quality that can be incorporated into both vintage and modern wear. Perhaps it is time for the Zouve jacket to appear yet again?
“The Zouave Jacket can be made of fine crimson flannel, with bouillonnees of wide silk, edged with silk braids, or, if preferred, with beads or bugles. Zouaves Jackets are now much in favor, and any fancy in relation to their form or material may be safely indulged. Apropos of beads, we have seen a collar of white pearl beads, worn over an azurline blue robe. For a morning undress it was very becoming. Ladies may thus, from their own resources, add a very desirable article to their toilet.”