Zoot suit

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A soldier with two men wearing zoot suits in Washington, D.C., 1942

A zoot suit (occasionally spelled zuit suit[1]) is a men's suit with high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed, pegged trousers, and a long coat with wide lapels and wide padded shoulders. This style of clothing became popular in African American, Mexican American, Filipino American, Italian American, Jewish American, and Japanese American communities during the 1940s.[2][3][4]

The zoot suit originated in an African American comedy show in the 1930s and was popularized by jazz singers. Cab Calloway called them "totally and truly American", and a young Malcolm X wore them. During the shortages and rationing of World War II, they were criticized as a wasteful use of cloth, wool being rationed then. After zoot suit wearers were victims of repeated mob violence, the suits were prohibited in 1942 for the duration of the war.[5][6]


One of Cab Calloway's zoot suits on display in Baltimore's City Hall, October 2007
Malcolm X wearing a zoot suit
Men wearing zoot suits in 1946

The zoot suit was created by Ernest "Skillet" Mayhand during his shows as a part of the comedy act "Pots, Pans & Skillet" an act that ran on the "Chitlin' Circuit".[citation needed] The suits were first associated in African-American communities such as Harlem,[7] Chicago, and Detroit in the 1930s,[7] but were made popular nationwide by jazz musicians in the 1940s. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "zoot" probably comes from a reduplication of suit. The creation and naming of the zoot suit have been variously attributed to Harold C. Fox, a Chicago clothier and big-band trumpeter;[8] Charles Klein and Vito Bagnato of New York City;[9] Louis Lettes, a Memphis tailor;[10] and Nathan (Toddy) Elkus, a Detroit retailer.[11][12]

Jazz bandleader Cab Calloway frequently wore zoot suits on stage, including some with exaggerated details, such as extremely wide shoulders or overly draped jackets.[13] He wore one in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. In his dictionary, Cab Calloway's Cat-ologue: A "Hepster's" Dictionary (1938), he called the zoot suit "the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit."[14]

"A Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal)" was a 1942 song written by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Bob O'Brien.[15]

In 1943, there were a series of anti-Mexican youth riots in Los Angeles known as the Zoot Suit Riots. Norris J. Nelson, Los Angeles City Council member, proposed outlawing zoot suits after the Riots. The suits worn were seen by some as unpatriotic because of the amount of fabric they used, and zoot suits later became prohibited for the duration of the Second World War,[16] ostensibly because of their wastefulness of cloth. [17]

The Tom & Jerry cartoon short The Zoot Cat (1944) spoofs the trend with Tom trying to impress a girl (Toots) by wearing a zoot suit.[18]

Pachuco was a style of Mexican-American dress and culture that both men and women (Pachuca) participated in which was associated with the zoot suit. The Pachuco and Pachuca style's incorporation of the zoot suit acted as a way to challenge societal norms around ethnicity and gender.[19] [20][21]

Tin-Tan, a famous Mexican actor from the 1940s, wore zoot suits in his films. Labor leader Cesar Chavez sported zoot suit attire in his younger years.[22]

The 38th Street gang was a Los Angeles street gang known for wearing the zoot suit in the 1940s.

Zoot suits not only played a historical role in the subculture in the United States in the 1940s, but also shaped a new generation of men in Trinidad. These Trinidadian men who adopted this American fashion became referred to as the "saga boys"; they wore these suits and embraced the glamorous lifestyle that they represented. "Their fondness for the zoot suit, in particular signified a rejection of Anglo-centric precepts not only about fashion but, more profoundly, about manhood".[23] Therefore, although the "saga boys" had the appearance of adapting to the urban American way of life, they were in fact using this clothing and lifestyle as a way to improve their lives in Trinidad, rise above the restrictions that imperialism brought and create through this oppositional dress, a culture of their own.[24]

In the 1951 Three Stooges short "Three Arabian Nuts", Shemp finds a magic lamp complete with a genie (whom Shemp refers to as the 'Genius'). His first wish is for a sharp, new suit. The wish is promptly granted, leaving an overjoyed Shemp dressed in a spanking new zoot suit, complete with a long watch chain.

Some observers[who?] claim that the "Edwardian-look" suits with velvet lapels worn by Teddy Boys in Britain are a derivative of the zoot suit.[25]


British Teds wearing locally tailored imitations of the zoot suit

Traditionally, zoot suits have been worn with a fedora or pork pie hat color-coordinated with the suit, occasionally with a long feather as decoration, and pointy, French-style shoes.[citation needed]

A young Malcolm X, who wore zoot suits in his youth, described the zoot suit as: "a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats, and shoulders padded like a lunatic's cell".[26] Zoot suits usually featured a watch chain dangling from the belt to the knee or below, then back to a side pocket. A woman accompanying a man wearing a zoot suit would commonly wear a flared skirt and a long coat.[27]

The amount of material and tailoring required made them luxury items, so much so that the U.S. War Production Board said that they wasted materials that should be devoted to the World War II war effort.[28] When Life published photographs of zoot suiters in 1942, the magazine joked that they were "solid arguments for lowering the Army draft age to include 18-year-olds".[27] This extravagance, which many considered unpatriotic in wartime, was a factor in the Zoot Suit Riots. To some, wearing the oversized suit was a declaration of freedom and self-determination, even rebelliousness.[29][30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Calderin, Jay (2013). The Fashion Design Reference & Specification Book: Everything Fashion Designers Need to Know Every Day. Rockport Publishers. ISBN 978-1-59253-850-8.
  2. ^ Walker, John (1992). A Glossary of Art, Architecture and Design Since 1945 (3rd ed.). G. K. Hall & Co. ISBN 9780853656395.
  3. ^ Maddan, Heather (April 29, 2007). "Zooting up / Brighten prom night with flash, dash - and panache". The San Francisco Chronicle.
  4. ^ "L.A. In the Zoot Suit Era :: Zoot Suit Discovery Guide".
  5. ^ Peiss, Kathy Lee (2011). Zoot suit: The enigmatic career of an extreme style. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-2303-3. OCLC 696092186.
  6. ^ Mtshali, Khanya (2018-05-17). "This outfit defined an era, created a riot, and was banned by the government". Medium. Retrieved 2022-04-06. In the summer of 1942, the War Production Board (WPB) was disconcerted about the amount of cloth used to make zoot suits, as it was considered wasteful in the midst of the war effort. Frank Walton, director of the WPB, said zoot suiters were inconsiderate of the wartime efforts to 'wear it out, use it up', because they used up cloth designated for American soldiers, Allies, and refugees. Walton imposed a ban on manufacturers and wearers of the zoot suit, declaring that 'every boy or girl who buys such a garment and every person who sells it is really doing an unpatriotic deed.'
  7. ^ a b Gregory, Alice (April 16, 2020). "A Brief History of the Zoot Suit". Smithsonian Magazine.
  8. ^ McG. Thomas, Robert (August 1, 1996). "Harold Fox, Who Took Credit For the Zoot Suit, Dies at 86". The New York Times. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  9. ^ "Clipping from The Daily Telegram". The Daily Telegram. Adrian, Michigan. 1943-06-28. p. 8. Retrieved 2022-04-06.Clipping from The Daily Telegram (Adrian, Michigan), June 28, 1943, p. 8.
  10. ^ Bird, Christiane (2001). The Da Capo Jazz And Blues Lover's Guide To The U.S.. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-81034-3.[page needed]
  11. ^ "Nathan Elkus, 89, Detroit retailer". Daily News Record. January 2, 1992. Archived from the original on June 11, 2014. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  12. ^ Elkus, Philip L. (August 4, 1996). "Zoot Suit Required Cutting and Cajoling". The New York Times. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  13. ^ Alvarez, Luis (2009). The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance During World War II. Univ. of California Press. pp. 92–93. ISBN 978-0-520-26154-9.
  14. ^ "Zoot Suit Riots". History. September 27, 2017.
  15. ^ Powell, Azizi (2014-02-12). "Two Examples Of The 1942 Song "Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal)"". pancocojams. Retrieved 2022-04-06.
  16. ^ {{Cite web |date=2022-03-29 |title=Zoot Suit Riots - American Experience - PBS |url=https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/zoot/ |access-date=2022-04-06 |website=American Experience |publisher=[[P
  17. ^ "War, Politics & Suits: The Zoot Suit". Duchess Clothier. Archived from the original on 2016-02-19. Retrieved 2022-04-06.
  18. ^ "The Zoot Cat (MGM)".
  19. ^ Ramos, Lisa Y. (2010). Ramírez, Catherine S. (ed.). "She's Stylin': La Pachuca, Chicana Resistance, and the Politics of Representation". Reviews in American History. 38 (3): 562–568. doi:10.1353/rah.2010.0021. ISSN 0048-7511. JSTOR 40865459. S2CID 143131289.
  20. ^ Ramírez, Catherine Sue (2009). The woman in the zoot suit : gender, nationalism, and the cultural politics of memory. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-4286-1. OCLC 272303247.
  21. ^ "Zoot Suit Girls". National Museum of American History. 2020-09-17. Retrieved 2021-07-12.
  22. ^ Bruns, Roger (c. 2011). Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement. Greenwood. ISBN 9780313386503. OCLC 846451052.
  23. ^ Neptune, Harvey R. (2007). Caliban and the Yankees. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. p. 105.
  24. ^ Neptune, Harvey R. (2007). Caliban and the Yankees. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. pp. 105–128.
  25. ^ Mazón, Mauricio (2010). The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292788213. Retrieved 30 January 2016.
  26. ^ Lennard, John (2007). Walter Mosley: "Devil in a Blue Dress" (e-book). Humanities-Ebooks. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-84760-042-4. Retrieved 2009-04-22.
  27. ^ a b "Zoot suits". Life. 1942-09-21. p. 44. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  28. ^ Rottman, Gordon L. (2007). FUBAR: Soldier Slang of World War II. Oxford: Botley. p. 117. ISBN 978-1-84603-176-2.
  29. ^ Osgerby, Bill (2008). "Understanding the 'Jackpot Market': Media, Marketing, and the Rise of the American Teenager". In Patrick L. Jamieson & Daniel Romer (ed.). The Changing Portrayal of Adolescents in the Media Since 1950. New York: Oxford University Press US. pp. 31–32. ISBN 978-0-19-534295-6.
  30. ^ Icarus Films: Seven Songs for Malcolm X. icarusfilms.com. 1993-09-15. Retrieved 2022-04-06.

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