Deconstructing bolero jackets: a rage on runways and red carpets alike

From Saudi couturier Tima Abid’s Paris Haute Couture Week show to Billy Porter’s costume for the 2020 Grammy Awards, the bolero has made numerous appearances this fashion season. We take a look back at its history

epa08168595 Billy Porter arrives for the 62nd annual Grammy Awards ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, USA, 26 January 2020.  EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT

The open-fronted short jacket has its roots in the bullfighting rings of Spain. Before it entered the realm of womenswear, the bolero was designed for the toreadors of the early 19th century, who needed to wear something light, bright and easily discardable.

The long-sleeved collarless jacket eventually caught the eye of the female spectators, who deemed it a better match to their crinoline skirts than the long jacket style popular in the 1840s. Sitting right under the breastbone, the bolero made moving about in the wide hoop skirt much easier.

Over in France, a similar style of jacket was thought to be influenced by the zouave. Named after the infantry regiment of a battalion of Algerian tribesmen, who wore the open-fronted jackets as part of their uniform in the 1830s, zouaves were brightly embroidered with swirling patterns. By the early 1860s, zouave jackets were adopted by high-society French women.

As noted in Godey's Lady Book in 1861: "Zouave jackets are worn both for morning and full dress; for the former, they are made of the same material as the skirt, or else of white pique, braided or embroidered. We have some very pretty ones with a narrow vine running all around them … Coloured braids are much used on the pique, and the effect is good. Some of the shirts have a plaited frill down the front and are decorated with velvet. For children of both sexes, these zouaves are all the rage … and make a very pretty and stylish costume. The evening zouaves are made of mull muslin … or figured blonde lace trimmed with ruching. This last style of zouave is quite new, particularly light and graceful, and at the same time stylish."

Despite its takeover by women, Vincent Van Gogh immortalised the jacket in its original context in 1888, in his painting Le Zouave.

This featured a soldier wearing a black jacket with bright red-orange braids, which the artist described as a "savage combination of incongruous tones". Even as the bolero rose in popularity in Europe, the zouave was adopted by women in the US in the 1850s and 1860s.

In the 20th century, the jacket was teamed with both summery and cocktail dresses, as well as worn over bridal gowns. A convenient cross between jacket and vest, it sometimes featured a zip. Yves Saint Laurent introduced the garment to high fashion with his cropped bolero jackets of the 1980s and, after a 20-year hiatus, it's been in and out of vogue since the new millennium. Although often called a shrug, the tailored bolero is deemed dressier and more suited to an evening out – as both Abid's couture collection and Porter's costume choice showed.