The briefly loved and beautiful zouave uniform
When the French went into Algeria in the 1830s, they encountered the Zouaoua people, a Berber tribe along the Djurdjura mountains. Allying with these tough mountain people when possible, metropolitan French officers fell in amour with their costume of flowing colorful breeches, short jackets, turbans or fez, and capes– soon borrowing these for locally raised troops and even for European units.
By the Crimean War, French Zouave units were engaged in combat and, being the first modern European conflict since 1815, caught the imagination of those who were military minded on the other side of the Atlantic.
By the 1850s many fashionable “marching units” of militia in the U.S. were patterned on Zouave gear which led to an explosion of units on both sides of the Civil War.
It wasn’t just in the U.S, North Africa, and France that the Zouaves caught on. During the 1863 Polish Uprising against the Tsar, there was a unit of black-robed Death Zouaves in the free Pole forces.
The French, for their part, maintained Zouave units, especially among North African troops, into the 1960s. While forces in other countries were very popular until as late as the early 1900s.
Today, North African countries, to include Morocco and Algeria, still maintain Zouave influence in certain dress uniforms while the Italian Bersaglieri, with a lineage of service that included Libya and Tunisia as well as Spanish paramilitary Regulares assigned to the country’s legacy enclaves of Céuta and Melilla, retain red fezes.
The Library of Congress has more than 270 vintage Zouave images online covering not only U.S./Confederate units but also French, Brazilian and Ottoman troops.