When a piece of clothing lends its name to a social riot, you know you’re looking at an iconic garment. The Zoot Suit certainly fits the bill.

The typical Zoot Suit is a two-piece suit with high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed, pegged trousers, and a matching long coat with wide lapels and wide padded shoulders.¬†Accessorized with a key chain that dangles to the knees and a fedora-like hat with a feather attached, the original Zoot Suits were worn in bright colours and bold patterns – a style that is all ‘look at me’ and ‘take notice’.

While its origins are unknown – its creation has been attributed to Harold C. Fox, a Chicago clothier and big-band trumpeter, Louis Lettes, a Memphis tailor and Nathan (Toddy) Elkus, a Detroit retailer – the first zooties were part of the Harlem jazz scene of the mid to late Thirties. With its loose fit and distinct fabrics, the Zoot Suit looked good on the dancefloor and was ideal to swing in.

Soon the style was also adapted by Mexican Americans and young white men of the working class. Although declared unpatriotic at the outbreak of World War because of its wasteful use of fabric, both swing entertainers (such as Cab Calloway) and swing dancers continued to wear Zoot Suits.

In around 1943, amidst a period of rising tensions between Anglo American servicemen stationed in Southern California and Los Angeles’ Mexican-American population, the Zoot Suits became a way to single out and attack young Mexican Americans, or Pachucos as they called themselves, who were accused of lacking patriotism. These racially motivated attacks that became known as the Zoot Suit Riots had much to do with the local police and press characterizing all Mexican youths as “pachuco hoodlums and baby gangsters.”

Although the zooties largely disappeared during the Fifties, the Zoot Suit was revived in the late Sixties as part of the Chicano Rights Movement and more recently in the Nineties as part of the swing revival.


2 Responses

  1. Banu

    The Zoot suit seems to have social-riot written all over it!
    This sub-culture was also popular with young parisians during WWII, as a protest against the Nazi regime. People wearing this slightly different style of Zoot suit were called Zazous and listened to the same type of music as the Zooties (swing, bepop and jazz in general was used as a form of protest against the Nazis, even in germany, where this movement was called “Swing-Jugend”). I read a very interesting article about it online, but I can’t find it right now. So we’ll just have to settle with the wikipedia article:
    I knew about the american Zoot suit, but I didn’t know that it had a political connotation as well! Great article, thanks!