If you are a curious dresser then chances are high that you already know about zoot suits. The style have been popular for little less than a century, though not as common adaptation but as a legend. For people who don't know about the zoot suits then these are the mens suits that come with high waisted, tight cuffed, pegged trousers which are paired with wide lapels and wide padded shoulders. These suits were once very popular among African-American, Italian American and Filipino American communities. On the first look the suits appear to be a goofy style but the history and legend behind the style is sad. Even today the zoot suits are banned in Los Angeles and you may want to avoid wearing the zoot suits if you are a resident there or just visiting. There are many songs written referencing the soot suit. So what did a mere garment do to induce this much of restrictions against it and what is the story that makes this legend sad?
It all started with the man called Jose Diaz when the 22 year old man went to attend a birthday party in rural Los Angeles area in 1942. He was wearing a white shirt and pegtop trousers which was the fashion among the younger generation at that time which was influenced by the jazz culture. Jose was originally from Mexico but was raised in the United States and the on the very next day of the party was about to enlist in the US army. It was the time of second world war and the man was eager to join the army and serve the country. Since he was scheduled to leave for the boot camp the next day he went to have fun for the last night. All was good but around the end of the night a group of trouble seeking young people started up a altercation. This soon turned into a fight and many of the people were injured. Daiz was one the people who was beaten and stabbed but later was pronounced dead in the hospital due to a concussion in the brain.
This incident soon became the talk of the town and was popularly known as The Sleepy Lagoon Murder. This soon caused fear and unrest among white Angelenos over the unruly dangerous Mexican teens. The connection between this incident and the zoot suit is that the Mexican teens at that time had a specific type of style that they preferred to be seen in. The suits that they wore were ostentatious with the defining feature of ballooned pants and long coats. The zoot suit was a style of suit that was defined by exaggerated shoulder pads, high waisted ballooned trousers that were usually cuffed at the ankles and long gleaming watch chains. They also wore with it long coats that swayed about. After Daiz's death the governed at that time viewed it as a call for action. The Los Angeles police soon arrested about more than 600 Mexican American youths and in 1943, all the members of the group called 38th street boys were convicted among which one was sentenced to life in prison. Zoot suits were the identification factor when the police started arresting the youths. Within months of these actions, what became widely known as the zoot suit riots erupted. This soon spread to other communities while the Japanese Americans were expelled from the internment camps, the Blacks in the America migrated to the north so as to escape the racial hostility. This was the time of the Second World War and thus the people feared who they saw as outsiders at that time. Although these people fought for the nation in the Second World War they were still seen as outsiders and consequently threats in the urban areas.
The youths were no longer on the tolerating side and thus riots broke out at many parts of the nation. The racial discrimination and the hostile behaviour towards them caused the Mexican Americans to take up the front and center of these riots. The zoot suit became the symbol at these riots. This flamboyant design of suits first became popular when the African American jazz musicians adopted the outfit in their appearances in the night clubs. The outfit usually consisted of exaggerated padded shoulders, high waisted ballooned trousers and pork pie hats since this design helped them to move freely that is like easy to jump, jive and swing in the fast paced jazz performances. The style was fast to spread among the women too. They adopted their own version of these suits thus subverting the status quo and thus testing the established notions of feminity. Working class whites, blacks and other youths of color greatly favored the style and embraced the look.
But when the riots started out the zoot suits became the symbol of the resistance. This was instantly recognised and there is a novel that was published in 1952 that describes the protagonist wearing the zoot suit look. It states " It was as though I'd never seen their like before: walking slowly,. their shoulders swaying, their legs swinging from their hips in trousers that ballooned upward from cuffs fitting snug about their ankles; their long coats long and hip tight with shoulders far too broad to be those of natural western men." The last bit of the extract defines how they were seen as an outsider even though they were the citizens of the nation. Thus this style took the centre stage of the riots so to consciously reject the white middle class ideas of respectability. The origin of the style can be directly traced back to the black dance halls in New York City's Harlem neighbourhood about the 1930s when the people found that the loose fit with the cuffed ankles were one of the best picks to freely move on the dance floor.
The riots were soon met with political suppression especially in Los Angeles. Even after the intervention of the Los Angeles Police Department the young people remained to be committed to their identity loudly and occupying space on their own terms. Soon there was an order issued that banned the production of wool, pleats, cuffs and long jackets that were the key elements of the zoot suit style stating it as the national efforts to preserve resources and as a part of the War Preparedness Program. This mandate had practical purposes and hence it was risky to retaliate against it. Still the bootleg tailors continued sales and the ones that stood against the rule were deemed to be unpatriotic
People who didn't conform with the standards were beaten and brutalized. The Mexican youth and as well as the Filipinos and Black zoot suiters were searched and beaten brutally. They were stripped of the suits and the suits were burnt in the streets. At a point of time there was a mob of white sailors and Marines who entered the Mexican neighbourhoods and brutalized the youths there for impunity. The hate against ethnic clothing was very strong at that time and the zoot suits bore the brunt of it. This action soon stirred the nation and even the First lady at that expressed her concern on the matter.
The race riots that lasted for more than a week finally ceased when the servicemen were confined back to their bases and about 500 Mexican American youths were arrested. After this similar clashes still prevailed which made the L.A City Council to announce that wearing zoot suits on Los Angeles streets as a punishable offence. The zoot suits were arguably the first fashion movement that caused a mass civil unrest in the whole of American history.
Even after all this the zoot suits prevailed since it had created a lasting influence and also because of the fact that the riots were one of the important pivotal events in the Mexican American history. When the Chicano Movement happened the zoot suits were the ones that lead it and also in the front line. This movement fought against barriers in education, fair pay and housing. There were many events that were coordinated to show the protest - walkouts and strikes. This exposed their struggle and helped them shape into a legitimate political force.
Even today in the 21st century the zoot suit and the story of it inspires the Mexican style to a great degree. The inner city youth still continue to face racism, poverty, police brutality and many others thus making the youth still use this fashion to reclaim their identity. Thus the zoot suit remains as the symbol for people who demand to be seen and also at the same time live in their own cultural standards. While the zoot suit first started out as the form of fashion garment it soon rose to be a symbol against oppression and a political statement against injustice. Even today the struggle persists against these standard conformism and there are people struggling to claim the space that they rightfully own and deserve.
This history of the zoot suit has remained in the minds of the people and still some use them as costumes. The word zoot probably comes from the reduplication of the word suit. The zoot suit has its own place in the hearts of the jazz music lovers since the origin was from that. The jazz bandleader Can Calloway used to wear these zoot suits often on stage with some exaggerated details like extremely wide shoulders and overly draped jackets. Even though the zoot suits came into existence as early as in the 1930s they were made popular nationwide by the jazz musicians of the 1940s. The actors of that time also were quick to adopt the famous style. Tin tan a famous Mexican actor of the 1940s wore zoot suits and even the Labour leader Cesar Chavez was seen wearing a zoot suit at his younger years. There were many songs that were written referencing the zoot suits and the riots of the time. Even in the famous cartoon, Tom and Jerry, the Zoot cat is seen wearing the trendy Zoot suit so as to impress the girl.
Apart from their association with the subculture in the United States they also shaped a new generation of men in Trinidad. The young men at Trinidad adopted the American culture and were widely known as the Saga boys. These men were known for their glamorous lifestyle and started wearing suits especially the zoot suits. Even in Trinidad it was about protesting against imperialism. The men adopted these American way of dressing to improve their lives in Trinidad and to rise against the restrictions that imperialism brought to their culture.
If you are thinking of wearing a zoot suit as a costume ( remember never in Los Angeles ) then there are some little details that you can include to achieve a authentic look. Traditionally these zoot suits were worn with fedora or pork pie hats that were color coordinated with the suits. You can also add little decorations like long feather on it and French style shoes. Zoot suits were often worn with a watch chain that dangled from the belt to the knee below and then back to the side pocket. This is one of the main defining characteristic and hence you can include this when trying out the costume. As for the woman who is accompanying the man with the zoot suit you can wear flared skirt and a long coat with it.
The material is loose and of course extravagant but the zoot suits have made their mark as a declaration of freedom, self determination and to some degree when rebelliousness of the people demanding their rights. In our site we offer great deals on the zoot suits which is a style of historic importance.