If you’ve ever seen the 1994 film The Mask with Jim Carrey or seen the lindy hop scene from the film Malcolm X then you will have seen the exuberance and unabashed gall of the zoot suit!
The zoot suit came into prominence amongst young African American males around the 1930’s and stayed around to mid way through the Second World War. It is one of the few times in our most modern history (over the past 100 years) when the male silhouette changed dramatically
The zoot suit was characterised by high waisted baggy trousers that could reach 30inches or more in circumference around the knee and then tapered sharply into cuffs around the ankles. These trousers were often known as drapes or Punjab pants because of the excess material and their similarity to trousers seen on Indian soldiers. A long jacket or coat that hugged the waist and sometimes reached to or past the knee would accompany the trousers; the shoulders of the jacket were equipped with large shoulder pads which gave the wearer a square boxy body shape that had the advantage of making him look larger than he was.
Finishing this ensemble would be a wide brimmed hat often with a feather stuck in the band and an extraordinarily long key chain that could be seen swinging from underneath the jacket. All this may seem spectacular enough but the outrageousness didn’t stop there. The suits would often be in bright or unusual colours and worn with the greatest aplomb and pride. Truly a man in a zoot suit was a man who was looking sharp!
According to the New York Times in June 1943 a young bus driver by the name of Clyde Duncan was the first person to purchase a zoot suit from a tailor in Gainsville, Georgia, USA under the premise that he wanted to look like Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind. Knowing that GWTW is set in the late 1800’s around the time of the American Civil war it is unclear which Rhett Butler scene he was referencing as excess fabric in men’s suits was not common in this era and no one from that film wears anything similar to a zoot suit.
However the real exact origins of the genesis of this attire are unclear. There have been reports that it was developed from the night life in Harlem or suggestions that it came from the extravagant wear of the jazz band leaders such as Cab Calloway or Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero. However it came to be it is clear that very much like the hoodie of recent years the zoot suit developed from an emblem of ethnicity amongst young African Americans into a symbol of youth culture that was seen as a threat because of its refusal to adhere to the rules of subservience.
The enigmatic charisma and creativity of the African American communities was something that was not lost on the youth of other cultures and before long the zoot suit along with jazz music was adopted by Latino and Filipino American youth. There is much written about young Mexican American (pachuco) street gangs of the early 1940’s and how they became synonymous with the suit. The zoot suit had become the uniform of urban youth and so when the US War Production Board rationed the use of fabric for suiting and drew up regulatory guidelines for the manufacture of streamline suits it was seen as an attempt to halt the production of the zoot suit.
Although many tailors stopped making and advertising the manufacture of the zoot suit this didn’t stop the appeal and a number of bootleg tailors in Los Angeles and New York were still catering to the demand. This bought about a stark contrast between the inner-city youth and service men who wore the seemingly sensible regulation streamline chino suit.
The zoot suit had become political, purposefully and publically throwing rationing regulations back in the face of the authorities. It was seen as making a stand against the outward show of patriotism that the chino stood for. The zoot suit represented social and moral degeneracy in the eyes of the authorities not just for disregarding the rationing laws but for being associated with pachuco gangs, petty crime and violence.
At this stage tensions amongst servicemen and inner city ethnic populations were running high and in the summer of 1943 thousands of service men piled into the streets of Los Angeles with the intention of destroying the zoot suit and anyone wearing it.
Unstopped by the police that accompanied them; marines, sailors and civilian vigilantes indiscriminately assaulted thousands of young Mexican, Filipino and African American men and women whether they were criminals or not. Zoot suit wearers were dragged out of bars, pool halls and cinemas. They were badly beaten with iron bars and weighted ropes, stripped of their suits and had their conch and “ducktail” hairstyles forcibly cut. The suits were ritualistically ripped and burned in the street.
Papers like the Los Angeles Times were at great pains to try and alleviate the level of mutual violence and suggest that the rioting was not racially motivated. However their concern was purely economic rather than racially harmonious as they feared the knowledge of brutality towards Latino Americans would result in a boycott by manual labourers and farm workers from Central and South America.
The outcome of the riots was an ineffective report with a number of suggestions circulating around youth recreation centres, multi racial police training and greater security measures. After trying to make the wearing of a zoot suit a jailable offence the Los Angeles City Council encouraged the WPB to reiterate its regulations regarding fabric rationing and investigate tailoring practices in an attempting to quash illegal zoot suit production
By 1944 the zoot suit had reached London but never really caught on with the same vigor (rationing regulations still applied) and within a year fashion had moved on. It may seem remarkable that an item of clothing can cause such social unrest but it is less the clothing and more the idea of what the clothing symbolises in the limited minds of a few that causes the greater problems.