Jump to content

Zoot suit

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
African American teenagers in zoot suits, 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. It is most notable for its use as a cultural symbol among the Hepcat and Pachuco subcultures. Originating among African Americans it would later become popular with Mexican, Filipino, Italian, and Japanese Americans in the 1940s.[2][3][4][5]

The zoot suit originated in African American comedy shows in the 1920s. Comedians such as Pigmeat Markham, Stepin Fetchit, and many others would dress in rags or in baggy suits for their comedic routines. This style of oversized suits would later become more stylish in inner city ghettos. Many tap and Lindy hop dancers would wear loose fitting suits to the clubs and ballrooms. These suits made it much easier to navigate through the dance floor while dancing. Jazz and Jump Blues singers helped popularize the style in the 1930s and 40s. Cab Calloway called them "totally and truly American". The suits were worn mainly by African American men, including a young Malcolm X.[6] During the rationing of World War II, they were criticized as a wasteful use of cloth, wool being rationed then. In 1942, the War Production Board issued restrictions aimed at stopping the sale of zoot suits.[6]

In the so-called Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, groups of predominately Mexican zoot suiters became victims of repeated racial mob violence.[7][8] Wearing of the zoot suit was never banned, despite a debate of its prohibition by the Los Angeles City Council in the aftermath of the riots.[6][8][9] The zoot suit become an important symbol of cultural pride and defiance of oppression in the Chicano Movement.[10] It experienced a brief resurgence in the swing revival scene in the 1990s.[11] The suit is still worn by Chicano in Mexican subcultures for memorialization events, regular celebrations, and special occasions.[12][13][14]



Trumpeter from Lionel Hampton's band wearing a zoot suit
Cab Calloway wears a white zoot suit in a lobby card for the 1943 musical film Stormy Weather.

The suits were first associated with African-Americans in communities such as Harlem,[15] Chicago, and Detroit in the 1930s,[15] but were made popular nationwide by Jazz and Jump Blues musicians in the 1940s. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "zoot" probably comes from African American Vernacular English and reduplication of suit. The creation of the zoot suit have been variously attributed to Harold C. Fox, a Chicago clothier and big-band trumpeter;[16] Charles Klein and Vito Bagnato of New York City;[17] Louis Lettes, a Memphis tailor;[18] and Nathan (Toddy) Elkus, a Detroit retailer.[19][20]

Malcolm X wearing a zoot suit (1940)

"A Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal)" was a 1942 song written by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Bob O'Brien.[21] Jazz bandleader Cab Calloway frequently wore zoot suits on stage, including some with exaggerated details, such as extremely wide shoulders or overly draped jackets.[22] 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."[23]

Pachucos and Pachucas[edit]

Frank Tellez, a 22-year-old Mexican American man, models a zoot suit while arrested during the Zoot Suit Riots (1943)

Pachucos and Pachucas were early Chicano youth who participated in a subculture that fashioned zoot suits.[24] The subculture emerged in El Paso, Texas, in the late 1930s and quickly spread to Los Angeles.[25] Pachucos and Pachucas embraced this style that challenged white American norms around race and gender norms[26][27] The Mexican American zoot suit style was usually black, sharkskin, charcoal gray, dark blue, or brown in color with pinstripes.[8] African American styles usually incorporated brighter colors, thick chalk stripes, floppy hats, and long chains more often than Mexican Americans.[8] Both Pachucos and Hepcats functioned on the margins in American society.[8] Some Pachucos and Hepcats shared solidarity or respect for one another because of this.[8]

In the early 1940s, Pachucos were associated with violence and criminal behavior by the American media, which fueled anti-Mexican sentiment and especially negative views of the zoot suit style in Los Angeles.[28] Pachucas, some of whom also wore the zoot suit, often with some modifications and additional accessories like dark lipstick, were seen as threatening to ideas of family stability and racial uplift, often shunned by their communities and the wider public.[29] The zoot suits became framed as unpatriotic, referring to the excessiveness of cloth during wartime.[7][30] In 1942, police from across Los Angeles arrested 600 Mexican Americans in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, which involved the murder of one man, José Gallardo Díaz, at a party.[7] Almost all of those arrested as allegedly potential suspects were wearing zoot suits.[7]

Media coverage before and after the case sensationalized and further fanned the flames of hostile anti-Mexican sentiments in the city and abroad.[7] This made some Mexican Americans hesitant to wear the zoot suit, since they did not want to be viewed as criminals simply for their style of dress.[8] Some Pachucos became affiliated with early gangs in Los Angeles and embraced their presumed-to-be criminal status with the zoot suit.[8] Others wore the zoot suit, but refused to refer to themselves as 'zoot suiters.'[8] Mexican Americans who rejected Pachucos and zoot suit attire became known as 'squares' who were said to believe in assimilation and racial uplift theory.[8]

Mexican American men were stripped of their zoot suits by U.S. servicemen in the Zoot Suit Riots. Despite being attacked, many were also arrested.[28]

This tension exploded in 1943 in a series of anti-Mexican riots in Los Angeles that became termed the Zoot Suit Riots.[28] For ten days, white U.S. servicemen cruised Mexican American neighborhoods searching for zoot suiters to attack.[7] In some cases, youth as young as twelve were attacked and dragged out of establishments.[7] Filipinos and Black zoot suiters were also targeted, such as a Black man who had his eye gouged out with a knife by "a crowd of whites."[8] After being attacked, Mexican and Black zoot suiters rioted against white U.S. servicemen.[8] On the fifth day of the riots, the zoot suiters repelled attackers in a coordinated effort.[8] Busloads of police were brought in to rescue "the retreating servicemen," after which "dozens of Mexicans" were arrested.[8] Military officials declared Los Angeles off limits to servicemen the next day.[8]

After hearing of the event, an article for the Pittsburgh [PA] Courier warned that Black zoot suiters could be the next target for "the patriotic lawlessness of men in uniform" and stated that both "Los Angeles Negro and Mexican zoot suiters are closer together than they are to members of their own racial group."[8] Norris J. Nelson, Los Angeles City Council member, proposed outlawing zoot suits, although this did not occur due to questions about its constitutionality.[6][8][9]

Cesar Chavez sported zoot suit attire in his younger years and the zoot suit became an important cultural symbol for the Chicano Movement.[31] The earliest youth who reclaimed the word Chicano as an identity of empowerment were in fact Pachucos.[32]

White Americans[edit]

Soldier inspecting the zoot suit attire of two white youths (1942)

Throughout the 1940s, white American views on the zoot suit varied. The jive talk of African American hepcats had spread, or been appropriated, among white middle class youth in the early 1940s.[33] This began to erase the origins of the zoot suit as a Black cultural symbol, which made it more acceptable to white Americans.[33] Prior to the Zoot Suit Riots, the zoot suit was sometimes positioned as a symbol of American individualism and even patriotism in comparison to the fascist uniform attire and regimentation of Nazi Germany.[33] White and Black soldiers would sometimes be seen "zooting" their uniforms in war effort photos, with the press presenting the zoot suit as a symbol of youthful relatability rather than as an oppositional or unpatriotic symbol.[33] Most of the visible tension surrounding the zoot suit prior to the riots was concentrated in the Los Angeles area regarding the spread of anti-Mexican sentiment among whites in the city.[33]


Calypso singers

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."[34]

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.[34]

Swing revival era[edit]

In the swing revival era, which started in 1989 and carried to about 1998, the zoot suit experienced a small resurgence mostly based in nostalgia of the 1940s era, yet notably missed many of the racial dynamics that surrounded the zoot suit.[11][35] Bands included The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Royal Crown Revue, and Cherry Poppin' Daddies.[11] One of the popular songs of the era was the Cherry Poppin' Daddies' "Zoot Suit Riot", which presented the historical moment of the Zoot Suit Riots through a lens of masculine power.[11]


Man in a red zoot suit at an event (2012)

The zoot suit is regularly memorialized by the Chicano community today as a symbol of cultural pride.[12][36][37] Some of this is owed to Luis Valdez's 1979 play Zoot Suit and its subsequent 1981 film, which carried knowledge of the era and interest in the style forward.[38][39] Outside of memorialization events, such as those held on the anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots,[36][12] the zoot suit is still sometimes worn by Chicanos for special occasions, including proms, usually as a dual display of formal wear and cultural pride.[13][40] It is also worn in certain urban areas in Mexico for similar purposes.[41]


Child in 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]

African American man in zoot suit in the 1940s

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".[42]

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.[43]

African American men in zoot suit

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.[44] 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".[43] 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.[45][46]

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.[47]


See also[edit]

  • Zazou – Subculture in France during World War II


  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. ^ "The Zoot Suit and Youth Culture".
  6. ^ a b c d Peiss, Kathy (2011). Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 37. ISBN 9780812204599.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "Zoot Suit Riots | American Experience | PBS". www.pbs.org. Retrieved 2023-01-17.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Macias, Anthony F. (2008). Mexican American mojo : popular music, dance, and urban culture in Los Angeles, 1935–1968. Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 105–115. ISBN 978-0-8223-8938-5. OCLC 308677458.
  9. ^ a b Orozco, Christian (2023-06-02). "Where and how the Zoot Suit Riots swept across L.A." Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2023-08-21. The council approves the resolution, but the ordinance never goes into effect. Instead, the council urges the War Production Board to take even further steps to curb the production of zoot suits.
  10. ^ Sandoval, Denise M. (2013). "The Politics of Low and Slow/Bajito y Suavecito: Black and Chicano Lowriders in Los Angeles, from the 1960s through the 1970s". In Kun, Josh; Pulido, Laura (eds.). Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 197. ISBN 9780520956872.
  11. ^ a b c d Howard, Sarah Elizabeth (2010). "Zoot to boot: the zoot suit as both costume and symbol". Studies in Latin American Popular Culture. 28: 112–131. doi:10.1353/sla.0.0004. ISSN 0730-9139. PMID 20836266. S2CID 30345366.
  12. ^ a b c "78th Anniversary of LA's Zoot Suit Riots in Commerce". NBC Los Angeles. Retrieved 2023-01-18.
  13. ^ a b Little, Emerson (2021-11-17). "Estrella Family Fashions Zoot Suits at El Pachuco". fullertonobserver.com. Retrieved 2023-01-18. Some of the store's busiest times of the year include Halloween and prom season.
  14. ^ Estefania, Rafael. "Pachucos: The Latinx subculture that defied the US". BBC News. Retrieved 2023-09-14.
  15. ^ a b Gregory, Alice (April 16, 2020). "A Brief History of the Zoot Suit". Smithsonian Magazine.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ "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.
  18. ^ 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]
  19. ^ "Nathan Elkus, 89, Detroit retailer". Daily News Record. January 2, 1992. Archived from the original on June 11, 2014. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  20. ^ Elkus, Philip L. (August 4, 1996). "Zoot Suit Required Cutting and Cajoling". The New York Times. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  21. ^ Powell, Azizi (2014-02-12). "Two Examples Of The 1942 Song "Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal)"". pancocojams. Retrieved 2022-04-06.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ "Zoot Suit Riots". History. September 27, 2017.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Chàvez Candelaria, Cordelia (2004). "Pachucos". Encyclopedia of Latino Popular Culture: Volume 2. Greenwood Press. pp. 610–11. ISBN 9780313332111.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ "Zoot Suit Girls". National Museum of American History. 2020-09-17. Retrieved 2021-07-12.
  28. ^ a b c Perez McCluskey, Cynthia; Villaruel, Francisco A. (2007). "Policing the Latino Community". Latinos in a Changing Society. Praegar Publishers. pp. 186–87. ISBN 9780275962333.
  29. ^ Escobedo, Elizabeth Rachel (2013). From coveralls to zoot suits : the lives of Mexican American women on the World War II home front. Chapel Hill. pp. 10–12. ISBN 978-1-4696-0206-6. OCLC 841229543.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  30. ^ "War, Politics & Suits: The Zoot Suit". Duchess Clothier. Archived from the original on 2016-02-19. Retrieved 2022-04-06.
  31. ^ Bruns, Roger (c. 2011). Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement. Greenwood. ISBN 9780313386503. OCLC 846451052.
  32. ^ Macías, Anthony (2008). Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935–1968. Duke University Press. p. 9. ISBN 9780822389385.
  33. ^ a b c d e Peiss, Kathy Lee (2011). Zoot suit : the enigmatic career of an extreme style. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 96–101. ISBN 978-0-8122-4337-6. OCLC 822890077.
  34. ^ a b Neptune, Harvey R. (2007). Caliban and the Yankees. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. pp. 105–128.
  35. ^ "Let's All Remember The Late-'90s Swing Revival". Stereogum. 2016-05-16. Retrieved 2023-01-17.
  36. ^ a b "The Zoot Suit Riots Cruise brings back 'a forgotten era'". Los Angeles Times. 2021-06-07. Retrieved 2023-01-18.
  37. ^ Ruelas, Renee. "Zoot Suit Pachanga celebrates culture, history". Las Cruces Sun-News. Retrieved 2023-01-18.
  38. ^ Staff, Daily Chela (2021-05-23). "Lowrider Cruise To Commemorate Zoot Suit Riot Anniversary". The Daily Chela. Retrieved 2023-01-18.
  39. ^ Bromwich, Jonah Engel (2017-03-30). "California Today: 'Zoot Suit' Memories". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2023-01-18.
  40. ^ Valenzuela, Eric (2010-03-23). "Zoot Suit Riot". Latino Los Ángeles. Retrieved 2023-01-18. They are still worn from time to time by pachucos and vatos who want to dress up.
  41. ^ WW, FashionNetwork com. "Mexico's 'pachucos' keep zoot suits, defiance alive". FashionNetwork.com. Retrieved 2023-01-18.
  42. ^ 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.
  43. ^ a b "Zoot suits". Life. 1942-09-21. p. 44. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  44. ^ Rottman, Gordon L. (2007). FUBAR: Soldier Slang of World War II. Oxford: Botley. p. 117. ISBN 978-1-84603-176-2.
  45. ^ 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.
  46. ^ Icarus Films: Seven Songs for Malcolm X. icarusfilms.com. 1993-09-15. Retrieved 2022-04-06.
  47. ^ Mazón, Mauricio (2010). The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292788213. Retrieved 30 January 2016.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]