Bolero jackets in the 20th century: 1930-1950

Evening Ensemble designed by Elsa Schiaparelli 1938

A few posts ago, we took a look at Bolero and Zouave jackets from the mid-19th century and Bolero jackets from the 20th century: 1900-1909. While I was looking at images related to those posts I found a few amusing boleros from the mid-20th century and decided to share those with you as well!

Let’s start here: with this evening ensemble designed by Elsa Shiaparelli at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My first thought about this was something along the lines of the following: “The dress has a lovely shape. What’s the abstract embellishment on the bolero?”

Gymnast bolero designed by Elsa Schiaparelli 1938
Well, look carefully at the Bolero picture. It’s decorated with gymnasts!
Evening dress by Elsa Schiaparelli 1938

Here’s the back of the dress without the bolero over it. Such lovely lines. In the picture on the right, you can also see the texture of the dress fabric. It’s difficult to discern what it is. Looks to me like it might be a jacquard  or watermarked fabric. Do you have other ideas about what the fabric is?

This next bolero was designed by Balenciaga in the 1940s. Its style is much more traditional than Schiaparelli’s gymnast bolero. The beading and other trimming on this Balenciaga bolero is exquisite!

Balenciaga Bolero 1946-1947
The Oxford English Dictionary includes these quotes regarding boleros in the definition. They are good context for the style and use of boleros in women’s clothing during the mid-20th century.
1941    ‘R. West’ Black Lamb I. 407   The boleros the women wore over their white linen blouses.
1968    J. Ironside Fashion Alphabet 35   Bolero, a short jacket reaching to the waist, worn open over a blouse‥sleeved or sleeveless‥worn by Spanish dancers and bullfighters.
I’m including this final bolero just for fun. I can envision it with a slinky black bias-cut 1930s evening gown with a low cut back… It even has a matching belt! This bolero strongly reminds me of the style of Ginger Roger’s dresses in her videos with Fred Astaire. I’ve also included just a few fun pictures of Ginger’s fabulous dresses below so you can see her general style. Beautiful!
Evening Bolero 1933
Evening Bolero 1933
Belt to go with Bolero 1933
Top Hat 1935
Carefree 1938
Flying Down to Rio 1933
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Bolero jackets of the 20th century: 1900-1909

A few posts ago, we took a look at Bolero jackets from the mid-19th century. Let’s look at them  in another context: Boleros from the early 20th century, with a hint of information from the 1890s as well.

1904 Dress with Bolero

What exactly is a Bolero jacket? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “A short jacket, coming barely to the waist; worn by men in Spain; applied to a similar garment worn  by women elsewhere, usually over a blouse or bodice.” This definition condenses the influence and origination of the Bolero down quite eloquently (of course, it is the job of the OED to eloquently distill all words down to a concise definition… but still, I do like this definition). The men’s style Spanish Bolero, with elaborate braiding and bright colors, influenced the style of women’s Boleros from the Victorian period. The following quotes from the OED provide more insight into the history of the Bolero (they also mention other styles of short jackets including the Zouave and the Eton).

“1892    Daily News 14 Nov. 6/3   The Zouave is as great a favourite as it has been for some seasons, and though it varies in form—being sometimes a bolero, sometimes a toreador, and sometimes a cross between an Eton jacket and a Zouave.
1893    Daily News 1 Apr. 2/4   The Zouave is quite as popular as it was last year.‥ Sometimes it is pure bolero.
1893    Lady 17 Aug. 178/1   Zouave Bodices are a feature of autumn gowns. (in the Zouave definition)
1899    Westm. Gaz. 6 July 3/2   Robbing the coat of its basque has created‥the bolero corsage, really an actual bodice, though appearing a bolero coat and skirt.”

The flared skirt and small waist silhouette of women’s clothing during the first decade of the 20th century was well suited to the style of Bolero jackets, as they could help to visually balance the figure by adding just a small amount of width across the chest and shoulders.  Here are a few Boleros from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One is silk velvet, elaborately trimmed. The other is lace. Can you imagine the dresses that would have accompanied these Boleros? Clearly, they were intended for different purposes. Perhaps the first was intended for evening wear and the second for an afternoon stroll or visiting friends?

c. 1905 Bolero from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
c. 1905 Bolero from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
c. 1907 Bolero from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
c. 1907 Bolero from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
c. 1907 Bolero from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bolero and Zouave jackets of the mid-19th century

Throughout the 19th century, civilian clothing for men and women imitated all sorts of military uniforms in cuts, trim styles, and names. Let’s look at some women’s styles from the the mid-19th century inspired by military wear.

First: the Bolero style jacket

From Peterson's Magazine August 1865

Popular during the mid-19th century, the Bolero is simply a short jacket, usually worn open in front, often fastened at the neck. In the mid-19th century Bolero jackets were worn in all sorts of colors and with all sorts of trim; however, they were often seen in military uniform colors and with trimming styles reminiscent of military trimming, especially braiding.

1863 Bolero from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
c. 1860 Dress with Bolero Jacket and braid trimming

Second: the Zouave style jacket


From December 1859 Godey’s Lady’s Book

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a Zouave jacket as follows: “A woman’s short embroidered jacket or bodice, with or without sleeves, resembling the jacket of the Zouave uniform.” The following quotes are included in the OED definition:

1859    Ladies’ Treas. Sept. 285/1   One of the most decided novelties of the present season is the Zouave jacket.
1859    Ladies’ Cabinet Dec. 335/1   Nothing can be prettier for the interior than the little oriental jackets which we call to-day Zouaves.

During the 19th century, this style gained the most popularity during the 1850s, when French Zouaves were fighting in the Crimean War, and during the American Civil War in the 1860s. You can see a few images of Zouave uniforms by looking at this post from a few weeks ago.

The description of the above image from Godey’s is as follows: “Morning-dress for young ladies, of plain merino or cashmere; the skirt trimmed by an inserting of velvet, several shades darker than the dress, with a row of buttons passing through it, and bordered by a rich braid pattern, known as the Greek. The Zouave jacket, which we have before spoken of, forms the waist. It is modelled from the Greek jacket, and has a close vest, with two points; the jacket, itself, rounding over the hips, and fitting easily to the figure. A Gabrielle ruff, and neck-tie finish it.”

Further information about this style was included in the Chitchat section of the same issue of Godey’s: “The Zuoave jackets may be made in black cloth or velvet, for home wear, with skirts whose waists have “outlived their usefulness.” They are especially suitable with dark silks, and a waist of this kind with a black silk skirt will do any amount of street service. Black silks are trimmed with a combination of black and crimson, black and purple, etc. when intended for dress occasions.”

c. 1862 Dress with Bolero from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Given the description (above)  from Godey’s about the Zouave jacket fashion plate, I think this c. 1862 dress from the Metropolitan Museum of Art falls into the category of a Zouave jacket rather than a Bolero. Clearly, this yellow dress has a jacket with a double pointed vest silhouette, rather than the Bolero style of the jacket with a blouse underneath. Regardless, this dress is quite fabulous! The pattern matches the trimmings exceptionally well in terms of style, and the whole ensemble is quite wonderful (including the crisscross braiding and tassels!).

The quotes are from the digital Godey’s excerpts at the University of Vermont, which can be viewed here.