Friday, September 30, 2011

CYL: Zouaves- Swank and File

Trois Regiment des Zouaves, 1916. (The Zouave Archives)
Salut, mes amies!

Uniforms. Ladies love a man in them and a well-presented one can make anyone feel like a badass. Well today we're going to learn about some of the greatest BAMFS of them all, born in North Africa and then extolled the world over: The Zouaves. What started as a group of Amazigh mercenaries hired by the French turned into a global phenomena within a few decades because of guts, determination, and some damned snappy clothes. But first, we need to revisit a little history from a prior CYL article (it's almost like I'm planning this!).

French Zouave by Frederic Remington, really it's a Turco. Remington wasn't much for specifics, I guess.
Historical Background
It all started with the Amazighs of Algiers (Berbers, as they were known to the Europeans, who really could have picked a more polite name) who fought against the French in the 1820s. While the country would fall under French control in 1827, the occupying forces were impressed by the ferocity and guerrilla tactics of the rebels. In 1830, the fighting skills of an elite group of Zouaoua (a band of the Kabyli(e) tribe of Amazighs) were enlisted to fight in the French-Algerian army, wearing uniforms comprised of their traditional clothing. Within a year two battalions of native Algerians, Amazighs, and French were formed up and seeing action throughout the region.

Of course, it didn't take long before becoming a member of these battalions became desirable and the amount of Frenchmen increased while the native North Africans decreased- until in 1852 when the zouaves were absorbed into the regular French army. North Africans were sorted to their own brightly-colored regiments called Turcos, their uniforms in a lighter blue than their primary European counterparts.

Speaking of which- we should probably interrupt this history lesson to go over what a zouave uniform entails. Be right back American Civil War buffs, I know you're chomping at the bit on this one.

A rather dapper-looking Turco, Algiers (fyeahmeninolduniforms)
Anatomy of a Zouave Uniform
So what makes these uniforms so damned swank? Well! They're typically comprised of a pair of baggy, sirwal-like trousers (red or cream, usually) tucked into buttoned gaiters (white/cream. The original zouaves made theirs of leather or canvas.) that both keep the excess of fabric contained, but also protect the leg from dirt, debris, and underbrush.

Up top was a fitted waistcoat (or gilet, colors depended on country and regiment, but they were typically in the usual color scheme of blue, red, or white) wrapped in a 12 foot-long sash that served multiple purposes: it practically kept belt and gun tack from rubbing up against the buttons on the vest, protected the midsection, and could also serve as an impromptu bandage in the thick of battle. Over the gilet was the showpiece- the zouave jacket. It was short, collarless, and featured a scooped-away front- almost like a bolero. The classic jacket was dark primary blue and trimmed in red applique with silver or gold buttons.

To top it all off (God, I'm hilarious...), zouaves wore both fezzes (with massive blue tassels!) and wrapped turbans, though the latter phased out more in countries beyond the French commonwealth. Kepis of the hard and soft varieties also found their way onto zouave noggins, but again, this was later on in the century.

Two French zouaves during the Crimean War (old-pictures)
Historical Background Part II- The Zouave World Tour!
The French Zouaves saw action around the world, but their big foray onto the international stage came in 1853 when the Crimean War broke out. Enemies and allies alike saw what these oddly-dressed battalions could do (and were impressed) and soon everyone had zouave fever! (Three major uniform trends of the 19th century as I see it: Zouaves, hussars, and Prussian blue- armchair generals and military history enthusiasts can snipe at me all they like, but I calls it how I sees it.) Soon EVERYBODY needed a group of crack baggy-trousered infantry, to the point where it was believed that the uniform made the men fight harder.

A Papal zouave (Warfare in the Age of Steam)
Spain, Poland, Britain, and even the Vatican raised zouave units, each with their own variation on the traditional Maghreb clothing. They caught the eye of a military buff in the United States named Elmer E. Ellsworth, who formed a squad of zouaves in Illinois in 1860. The colorfully-clad cadets were drilled hard and performed across the country, garnering national attention and the adoration of many a lady. They challenged any squad in the country to top them in drills, but none managed to beat the United States Zouave cadets- even Abraham Lincoln was impressed with Ellsworth and his men. Copycats and similar-clad units sprung up all over- much like Christopher Walken, the United States had the fever. And the cure was more zouaves!

Illustration from sheet music for "Zouave Grand Parade March", 1861 (Library of Congress) And yes, 'zouave fever' was a period term, I wasn't just referencing SNL.
By the time the American Civil War broke out there were dozens of zouave groups both Union and Confederate ready to heed the call, all inspired by Ellsworth's model. The man himself? Elmer Ellsworth died early in the war in 1861 in an attempt to seize Alexandria, Virginia. His legacy was intact, however, as zouave units would fight and die all the way through the war, still popular as ever.

What ended up killing the zouaves was technology, though. When World War I broke out, the last thing you wanted to be wearing in a grey, murky trench lined with opponents carrying the latest in arms was a brightly-colored uniform. (In fact, during one particular charge a zouave unit suffered 80% casualties!) By 1915 fezzes were changed out for helmets and the reds, golds, and blues for French blue and khaki.

Illustration of a French Cantiniere (wikicommons)
Vivacious Vivandieres and Courageous Cantinieres
Let's say, like Lord Flashheart, that you're more comfy in a dress. Well ladies, unconventional gentlemen, you can indeed have your cake and eat it too. With the zouaves came another French tradition of women serving alongside the men as nurses, water and ammunition bearers, and morale-boosting mascots. Typically they were wives or female family members of men serving in the unit that wanted to stay close to them. These sharp-dressed, multi-talented ladies of the battle field were called Vivandieres (Suppliers) or Cantinieres (Canteen woman). They wore corresponding uniforms to their male counterparts but with the addition of corsetted jackets, voluminous knee-length skirts, and bloomer trousers (this is the mid-1800s, folks, that's rare as hell). Just like the zouaves, Vivandieres caught on in Crimea then spread to points beyond.

So are you inspired by these multi-colored, multi-cultural soldiers of the 19th century? Splendid! Here's a few more lingering tastes of snappy uniforms:

Jen Thompson based this gem off of vivandiere and zouave uniforms. Check out more photos and information on her website.

"Imperial Guard Zouaves" and their Cantinieres too! (Warfare in the Age of Steam)
The Tirallieurs Algeriens, or Turcos (Ulanka and Litevna)

A French Vivandiere kickin' some ass. (thebonswan)

Traditionally the white trousers were worn in summer (mentalfloss)

Helpful Links
-I've only scratched the surface on zouave history and the culture of zouave-mania. For more information I'd suggested the blogs Warfare in the Age of Steam and the Spanish-language Zuavos del Mundo (Zouaves of the World).
- Want to add some zouave touches to your costume? The Steamer's Trunk has you covered with our wrapped turban, fez, tassel, and turkish trouser tutorials.
-This website is fantastic for general history and plenty of photos of zouaves.
-G.D. Falksen wrote an article about zouaves that appears on steampunk fashion.


  1. A very fascinating post, I didn't know the history of the zouaves although of course I knew about this kind of trousers. There is a photo of my father in the 30' wearing zouave trousers when skiing, I believe that they were in fashion at the time. Anyway, this is a very well documented article, I enjoyed reading it so much, thank you.

  2. Lovely article and bonus points for the Blackadder reference!

  3. absolutely wonderful and enlightening post! And just in time for Halloween ;)

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