As many of you are aware, I am a major proponent of exploring the wide range of cultural options available to steampunk enthusiasts (as I discussed several months ago in my Tor.com article on the subject). Today, I would like to return to the topic of the Zouaves, who I discussed some time ago in an earlier historical reference post.
The Zouaves were initially a force of North African soldiers raised by the French in Algeria the 1830s (their name is derived from the Zouaoua, a Berber tribe in the region), whose uniforms were of a very distinct Algerian style. By the 1840s, the Zouaves had ceased to be a native Algerian force and had become French, but the new Zouaves retained the distinctive uniform of their Algerian predecessors. The Zouaves were as distinctive on the battlefield as they were on the parade ground, and they continued to serve France throughout the 19th century and even through the First World War.
But the incredible story of the Zouave fashion phenomenon did not stop there. A force of Zouaves was raised to serve the Papacy, and by the late 1860s it included soldiers from all across Europe. Polish Zouaves fought against the Russians during the January Uprising of 1863. And perhaps most incredibly, American Zouaves fought on both sides in the American Civil War, which was geographically, politically and culturally about as far removed from Algeria as possible. They represent a remarkable instance of a particular 19th century fashion aesthetic being adopted by foreign cultures, which is very fitting for steampunk.
-G. D. Falksen