A Conversation About Zoot Suits


Contrary to popular belief, streetwear started before Stussy. In order to give us all some historical context on leisure/casual/street/whatever clothing, I’ve decided to interview a series of experts on specific styles and time periods. The first of these was about the zoot suit.

Dr. Eduardo Pagan was gracious enough to let me email him some questions about zoot suits. He is the author of Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A (2003) and an associate professor at Arizona State University. Learn and enjoy. My questions are in bold, his answers in plain text.

What constitutes a zoot suit?

I’ll try my best to describe a zoot suit, but you really have to see one to appreciate it. The zoot suit looked like a regular man’s business suit on steroids. As a fashion, the suit jacket produced a very striking silhouette by exaggerating the upper male body with wide, padded shoulders. The jacket then tapered dramatically down to a tight waist that flared out again down to the knees. It looked like something between a formal day coat (if you’re familiar with men’s formal wear) and a tightly fitted overcoat. Men on the East Coast wore suits of garish colors like lime green or bright orange, or with very exaggerated patterns like enormous plaids or wide stripes. On the West Coast the colors and patterns were much more subtle, as was the cut.

It was a fashion that could be worn by either men or women (and its androgyny was part of the scandal behind it), but it was mostly worn by men. When men wore the zoot suit, they wore it with high-wasted, flowing, pleated pants that flared at the knees and then angled dramatically down to a very tight fit around the ankles. If you remember MC Hammer’s pants in the classic ‘80s music video “Can’t Touch This,” the pants kind of looked like his. Another name for the pants that went with the zoot suit was “Punjab pants,” so you kind of get the idea. When women wore the zoot suit, they wore it with pleated skirts that were considered “revealing” for their day in showing leg, although the skirt length looks quite tame by our standards.

The zoot suit was part of a larger complex of ideas and practices that most Americans of the middle class found threatening to social order. That complex of ideas was summed up by the word “jazz.” Jazz was to white Americans in the 1940s what rock and roll was in the 1950s and rap was in the 1980s. The very word itself was slang for a particular kind of sexual intercourse; jazz was originally pronounced “jass,” which was short for “jumpin’ ass,” so the very roots of jazz came from cultural soil far outside the mainstream.

The jazz world was far bigger than just the music. It was a performative art form that defied social conventions of the body through music, dance, clothing, and attitude. It was a powerful form of black expression and behavior that captured the frustrations and aspirations of a marginalized people. Through sound and movement, it gave power in its very ability to convey the substance of existence, however difficult or inglorious that existence might be. That power of expression appealed to a wide swath of people, particularly young working-class people.

It’s important to also note that although jazz originated among African Americans, it was an art form and a way of life that was not exclusively black. Many early jazz artists were Jewish or other races deemed “non-white” of the day, and race mixing on and off the stage and dance floor was common. Here’s a really important point to understanding how people responded to jazz and its symbols (which include the zoot suit): in the age of segregation, race mixing a violation of white supremacy was considered to be subversive and a social outrage. As a music, style, and behavior that spread among youth, many Americans perceived jazz as a social danger.

I think that leaves several strong avenues to follow. Firstly, the difference between East and West Coast styles of the zoot Suit. What do you think accounts for regional variation? Secondly, I’m interested in how the sizing relates to rationing or concerns of conserving resources?

I think there were to factors that contributed to the differences in East and West styles. It’s hard to know which was the more important, but the first difference would be in those who took to the fashion. The zoot suit was popular across the color line (white, black, Latino, and Asian), but it was initially popularized by and most often worn by African Americans on the East Coast. There has always been a certain expressiveness within African American popular culture that exceeds and defies white middle-class norms. Part of that flaunting of custom is what white kids found appealing in the style, and still do of African American popular cultural expressions like rap.

But the more important point is that the garish colors and patterns forced you to notice the wearer of the suit. You almost had no choice, and that power to command attention in public spaces was a visual challenge to the norms of segregation. To get an appreciation for the social and political impact of the zoot suit, you have to understand the unwritten norms of segregation. In order to do that, just tune into any one of the movies made in the ‘30s and ‘40s or take a look at old Life magazines and count how many times you see a person of color (and if you do see one, note the context). To put it another way, if I were a Martian who understood American life solely through popular media of the ‘30s and ‘40s, people of color appear so seldom that I would think that America was populated exclusively by whites. Of course it wasn’t, but the fact that white-controlled media outlets erased or ignored the presence of people of color gives you an appreciation for the norms of segregation. As a person of color in the age of segregation, you were supposed to be in the background, unseen and unheard. Calling attention to yourself only invited trouble. Refusing to bend to the norms of segregation was often followed up by violence. Most students of history today do not appreciate that up until the Watts Riot of 1965—race riots of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries were always whites rioting against people of color (most often African American). So the exaggerated cut of the zoot suit, coupled with garish colors or patterns, actively and visibly defied segregation by forcing attention on to the wearer. They refused to be what Ralph Ellison called “the invisible man.” It was if those who donned the zoot suit defiantly said: “You can’t erase me, and you can’t ignore me. You have to see me and deal with me on my own terms.”

The cut of the zoot suit caused the same sensation on the West Coast, but by the time that the fashion caught on, in the early ‘40s, material was already being rationed. So the difficulty in acquiring enough wool or cotton to make a zoot suit forced a more conservative cut. But I would also add that the cultural norms of those who wore the zoot suit on the West Coast also had a direct role in its transformation. Most youth who wore the fashion were Mexican-American, although an appreciable number of white, Asian, and black youth on the West Coast wore it too. Mexican customs, particularly for men, were far more reserved when it came to wearing garish colors. That was appropriate for women, but not for men (notice the preponderance of black or other dark colors on Mexican American men today at any popular gathering). Thus “the drape”—the more conservative version of the zoot suit—was more often made of darker and somber colors: browns, blacks, and grays. I haven’t seen many examples of exaggerated patterns on the West Coast.

There was some speculation that the visceral reaction to the zoot suit was over of the rationing of material, but I don’t buy that argument on the surface of it. Again, looking to Hollywood as one social barometer, high fashion didn’t suddenly take a nosedive. Women’s gowns were still showy and flowy and men’s formal wear didn’t change at all. One of the norms of segregation was that one did not overtly talk about racial attitudes, as in “I don’t like your color, please leave my presence.” You will hardly ever find overt, negative comments about race in the newspapers and popular journals of the day. Really, it’s as if people of color didn’t exist at all. Now there were always exceptions to how people reacted and what they said in certain situations, but a polite disregard for racialized people and their cultures was the standard practice for most middle-class Americans. So they would talk about race in circumspect ways, and criticizing the use of material for a youthful fad was one way of criticizing the deeper point: young people of color were refusing to conform to the expectations of racial privilege, and a good number of white kids were also following suit (no pun intended) in embracing the fashion and the practice of race mixing on the dance floor.

To put it another way, historically, most Americans tended to not react violently to a perceived defiance of rationing in previous wars. However, most Americans did react violently to the defiance of racialized privileges.

I wonder about the retail environment for zoot suits. Where did kids buy them? Were there specialist makers? What kind of individual stamps could be put on the full outfit? And, beyond was the shopping experience another venue for race mixing?

I know there were some stores in Boston, Chicago, and Atlanta that specialized in off-the-rack zoot suits, but how many I couldn’t say. Clearly kids had to mix together in going to such stores.

I do know that many kids had their zoot suits tailor-made, and on the West Coast young men seemed to either take their father’s suit and have it cut down to size (leaving the larger shoulders and jacket length), or they simply purchased larger suits and had them trimmed down to size. This may also be another reason for why “the drape” was more popular in the West. A regular men’s business suit wouldn’t be long enough to go down to the knee like the zoot suit, but the jacket would still look long on a teenager (falling to about mid-thigh).

There was some individuality in the different suits that young people wore, although many critics tried to argue that it was a countercultural uniform. I think there’s some truth to that, both in the sense of a counter-culture, and also in the sense of a uniform. If you think of most youth fashion, there’s a remarkable degree of uniformity to whatever look is popular.

Some youth accessorized the zoot suit by wearing a narrow-brimmed pork pie hat and others wore hats with much wider brims and a long ostrich feather. Some wore their suits with open collars; others wore short ties, string ties, or bolo ties. Most suit pants had narrow belts, like the ones that were popular in the 1980s. In the East kids tended to have thinned-soled Italian made shoes and in the West the kids tended to have very thick-soled shoes. Many critics of the fashion tried to characterize the thick-soled shoes as weapons while kicking, but most youth simply preferred the thick-soled shoes because they didn’t wear out as often as thin-soled shoes. Some kids had long watch chains that swooped down to the knee.

Speaking of the 1980s, there was an interesting revival of the zoot silhouette in the early Hugo Boss suits. The look was adopted by one of the ‘80s bands that I can’t remember off the top of my head (Depeche Mode?), and Janet Jackson shot a music video in zoot suit.

I can’t help but think, as we track trends so often, about early versus late adaptors to the zoot suit. Was there inner tension amongst wearers? Signs that someone was “faking the funk,” anything at all of that nature? Somewhat related, where is the oddest place you’ve found reference to a zoot suit being worn. Some town or city that made you think, wow this thing really spread?

That’s a very good question about any inner tensions. I haven’t detected any. Jazz was about chilling out from the rat race and enjoying life (through booze, drugs, sex, and music), so they tended to not factionalize—that is, that I know of. The only “tensions” I’ve come across were actually between some of the hardcore jazz musicians who smoked marijuana and those who preferred heroin. They tended to not associate with one another, but their preferences for getting high never translated into any sort of confrontation. Of course, this is not to say that all aficionados of jazz smoked pot. Some did, and some didn’t. It was probably harder to get in the ‘30s and ‘40s than it is now, and most kids got into jazz for the music, fashion, and dance.

I guess for me, the oddest place that the zoot was worn was down in some rural towns in the South. Jazz tended to be more of an urban phenomenon, but its roots sink deep into R&B, which comes out of the rural areas of the South, so it’s no surprise that rural black kids got into it too. I just wonder where and when they wore the suit.

I think it worth mention major figures and how they promoted the style. How frequently was a zoot suit featured in the press? And, how what portion of that was positive or negative? I’m interested here in the roll of media to spread the style.

Nationwide, there was some mention of the zoot suit, but not much. The war was on and most newspapers cared far more for other issues than what working-class kids were doing. I read every issue of the Los Angles newspapers that I could get a hold of for the war period, and next to coverage of the war the newspapers were far more interested in Hollywood scandals and the goings on of socialites than they were about racialized people. I had mentioned earlier that if you were a Martian coming down from outer space and read the newspapers and magazines to understand life in the United States, you wouldn’t know that people of color existed at all. So there was very little coverage, overall, of jazz culture.

There were a few exceptions, of course, and every once in a while you would find an article here and there about the youth phenomenon. The coverage was usually told with a tone of bemused contempt. I wouldn’t call such coverage overtly negative, and it certainly wasn’t positive. It was largely with a tone of “what an odd thing those kids are doing.”

I don’t know that the media really played a roll in spreading the style. I’m not certain how often working-class kids read the newspapers. I do know that there were some early versions of music videos made of the zoot suit style, but to what extent those short films were seen by working class kids, I couldn’t say. I just don’t have any idea of what kind of distribution these few short clips had. I do know that swing jazz was played on the radio by stations specializing in what was called “race music” (i.e. black music). I also know that community dances were very popular, and that bands often toured, either regionally or nationally, and it was through touring bands that the music spread. And with the spread of the sound came the spread of the fashion.

Swing jazz offered a qualitatively different sound that what the mainstream radios were playing. Swing jazz had a faster beat and rhythm that was far more catchy than anything Bing Crosby was singing on the radio. Again, I would look at the grapevine spread of rap in much the same way; I don’t think the media had as much to do with its initial popularity (although it has certainly changed since rap became more mainstream).

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