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We Loveland: Le Fétiche Zouave

I’ve never been one to fetishize literal military style – camouflage makes me nervous, in fact – but I do like the details of military dress, if not their true meaning and purpose. Epaulettes (meant to hold a soldier’s gloves so bare fingers could more nimbly load bullets into a gun), cargo pockets (meant to carry ammunition) and gold braid (the icing of empire on the conqueror ‘s cake, as it were) are, in fact, weighted with uninspiring meaning.

But I ask you: What could be more Loveland in style than Le Zouave? Maybe only a pirate. The zouave – mercenary soldiers known for their zeal and exotic uniforms alike – had a pirate’s swagger and the romance of a magic carpet ride.

The exotic uniform of the original zouave came from tribal dress in the highlands of Morocco and Algeria, Berber cultures renown for bold textiles. In the late 1830s, their mighty fighters were hired by the French army as light infantry in the conquest of Algeria. The zouaoa wore their tribal garb into battle: turbans or fez, or both, a cropped, collarless jacket brightly colored, woolen vest, blouson, leather shin guards, and leggings under their voluminous pants, serouel.

Various formations of light infantry fighters, known as zouave, have worn similarly dashing uniforms on the battle fields of many other wars. The Franco-Prussian War, the Franco-Austrian War, Brazil’s war with Paraguay, and the Crimean War all had zouave regiments. Papal zouave fought Garibaldi’s men in the Italian Risorgimento (Garibaldi, of the famous “Red Shirt,” won).

In our own Civil War, zouave regiments served on both sides, inspired by the North African fighters’ canny ways with bayonets and horses and rough terrain. Their elaborate uniforms were financed by wealthy partisans who sponsored namesake battalions. And there were female zouaves as well, vivandiers of the French military tradition, who cooked, nursed, and supplied water or more from canteens in the combat fields. They wore serouel under their skirts. The most famous was Mary Tippe, beloved for her bravery, the archetypal “French Mary.” Or think of Rene Picard, from Gone with the Wind.”

It seems insane now to imagine the zouave raging into battle in their turbans and billowing pants, a fire of color and pattern in a field of gray or blue. But who could resist their romance?

Not Vincent Van Gogh, who painted his first portraits in Arles of a zouave boy, apparently when a huge storm chased him from his chosen field and he had to paint inside. News journals, novels and poems featured zouave, including The Bad Zouave by Alfonse Daudet , which recounted Prussian War with popularized pathos. There are zouave poems and music, including the Civil War-era Zouave Waltz, a polka, and “high-stepping” which I think some troupes still perform. Zouave lore seeded fashion romance as well when Godey’s Ladies Book promoted the new zouave jacket for women. Later, even the great Buster Keaton couldn’t resist the zouave allure; he appeared as one in The Playhouse, in 1921. And then there are zouave rolling papers. A military fetish to consider.

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