The zoot suit was an exaggerated version of a typical double-breasted (two rows of buttons down the front) business suit of the 1940s, altered to make it both more casual and more hip. Very popular among young African American men, young Mexican American men often referred to as Chicanos, and others trying to look hip and current, the zoot suit had a long jacket with wide shoulder pads and narrow hips, and high-waisted baggy trousers with tightly pegged, or narrowed, cuffs. Zoot suits were often made in bright colors and worn with long watch chains, brightly patterned neckties, flat topped "pork pie" hats, and shoes with thick soles. The zoot suit style was closely identified with jazz music and the casual youth lifestyle of the 1940s.
Many different people have claimed to be the inventor of the zoot suit. In reality the style probably had its roots among poor black youth of the Great Depression era (1929—41). Unable to afford new clothes, many young African Americans wore suits belonging to older relatives, taking them in at the waist, hips, and ankles. A tailor and bandleader in Chicago, Illinois, named Harold C. Fox (1910-1996) claimed to have made the first zoot suit in 1941 because he liked the style of the cut-down suits he saw on poor urban teenagers. Fox and others liked the style because it was snug enough to look cool, yet loose enough to do the latest jazz dances. The new suit style became part of African American jazz culture from New York's Harlem neighborhood to New Orleans, Louisiana's French Quarter. It was common jazz slang to put a "z" at the beginning of words, so the suit became a zoot.
The new zoot suit soon spread to the West Coast, where young Chicanos took up the fashion. The pride and sense of identity that the zoot suit culture inspired in youth of color was threatening to many conservative whites, and some even reacted violently to the sight of young men wearing the distinctive zoot suit. Perhaps the most extreme example of this violence was the "zoot suit riots" that occurred in Los Angeles, California, in June 1943. Beginning from a fight between a few sailors and a few young people in zoot suits,
The flamboyant styling of the zoot suit captured the exuberance of the jazz culture with which it was associated. Reproduced by permission of© Robbie
the riots spread and lasted for two weeks, with hundreds of uniformed white sailors and servicemen attacking young Chicanos and African Americans, beating them and ripping off their suits. The police did little to stop the violence, and local newspapers spoke out in support of the servicemen's actions.
Once World War II (1939-45) began, fabric rationing caused the U.S. government to ban the zoot suit. The style never became widespread again, though the extremely baggy fashions popular among the youth of the 1990s can be seen as a descendant of the zoot suit.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Thorne, Tony. Fads, Fashions, and Cults: From Acid House to Zoot Suit. London, England: Trafalgar Square, 1994.
Tyler, Bruce. "Zoot-Suit Culture and the Black Press." Journal of American Culture (Summer 1994): 21-35.
White, Shane, and Graham J. White. Stylin': African American Expressive Culture, from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.
[See also Volume 4, 1930-45: Men's Suits; Volume 5, 1980-2003: Baggy Jeans]
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