From mid- June 1940, until its liberation by the Allied forces in 1944, Paris was under German occupation. With little possibilities of expressing their anger and disgust for their Fascist invaders,  Parisians turned to a very visual way of showing their feelings: style.

While women’s hats were defiantly patriotic in their use of colour and size, it was a youth subculture, the Zazous, who – much like the Swingjugend in Germany – combined their love of jazz with an outlandish mode of dress aimed at defying Nazi ideologies.

Inspired by the zoot suits worn by American swing musicians, the Zazous who emerged in 1941 wore long, over-sized jackets in bold, brightly-coloured check patterns, lumber-jack style, combined with zoot-trousers that were tailored to the ankle but huge above the knee, showing off their white, or colourful socks. This was not only a public two fingers up at clothes rationing but a gesture of solidarity with America, and more over black American swing culture, a musical style the Nazis saw as ‘Jewish’, ‘negro’ and therefore ‘degenerate’.

Christian Dior remembered how the Zazous “…floated through Paris like revolutionary banners” alluding to typically British fashion by carrying umbrellas and wearing high, starched collars.

On observing Zazous at the Cafe de Flore, Simone de Beauvoir noted that their”…Anglophile…attitude did stand for a kind of opposition to the regime.”

Zazou girls, like their male counterparts, dressed in provocative, American-inspired styles. They would pair their short, full skirts, ankle socks and brothel creeper type shoes with big, curled hair and bright red lipstick, a million miles from the wholesome, natural image propagated by the Nazis.

The Zazous would hang out on the terrace of the Pam Pam cafe on the Champs-Élysées and the Boul’Mich, the Boulevard Saint-Michel near the Sorbonne as well as the cellar clubs of Dupont-Latin or the Capoulade in the Latin Quarter.

With their name inspired by a line in a song – Zah Zuh Zah – by Cab Calloway, the Zazous would dance their nights away to swing, yet their subculture was more than just hedonistic fun and their attitude went beyond flippant defiance. Some went on to join the militant Resistance movement that was growing in France, others, in solidarity with French Jews, would start wearing the yellow star with ‘Zazou’ or ‘Swing’ written on it.

By 1942 the Vichy regime realised that the Zazous were threatening their own envisaged nationalist youth image, and soon round-ups began in bars and Zazous were beaten on the street. They became the natural enemy of the fascist youth organisation, Jeunesse Populaire Française, who coined the slogan “Scalp the Zazous!”. Squads of young JPF fascists armed with hairclippers attacked Zazous and some were arrested and sent to the countryside to work on the harvest.

However, the Zazous continued to flourish underground until the end of the occupation, one of the Forties’ most fascinating subcultures.


One Response

  1. Joe Mulders

    The Zazous were not only confined to France,they also appeared in Belgium, mainly in Brussels the capital in the early 1940s. Not perhaps in large numbers but we had a few at our High School catering for about 600 students.One of them in my class, in full astonishing Zazou gear, long hair and umbrella was unfortunately picked up by the Gestapo. He was bashed around for a couple of days at their Head Quarters ,starved and they made him eat his own long hair.He told us that story, about a week later when he returned to school and I can still can see him bitterly crying about it.
    As the Zazous were more of a French speaking subculture, I doubt if we had any in the Flemish part of Belgium, at that time.