When you say the word zoot suit, I think of two things: Jim Carrey’s character in the Mask and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddy’s song, “Zoot Suit Riot.” I think of comical, over-sized suits, and really, when I think of 20th Century fashion, the zoot suit seems about as influential as the flock of seagulls haircut.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, the zoot suit was a polarizing form of fashion, that was very influential in shaping the second half of the century’s mens suits, and many considered the zoot suit to be a symbol of political resistance, and rebellion against the mainstream culture.
The zoot suit was originally worn by jazz musicians, African-Americans and Mexican-Americans in the late 1930s. Nobody is too sure who originated the look or where it came from – some suggest it was Toddy Elkus, a Detroit designer, that first created the zoot suit in 1939, calling it the Thunderbird. Or it might have been Harold C. Fox, a clothier and trumpeter from Chicago that made the suit. Or maybe it was Louis Lettes, a Memphis tailor.
Either way, the main characteristics of a zoot suit were established as a jacket with wide and low lapels, exaggerated shoulders, and cut very long, sometimes down to the knee. The trousers were characterized by the high waist, low crotch, and cuffs that tapered as close as possible to the ankle.
This look soon gained popularity with the hipsters of the day, African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, as well as dancers and musicians.
Then came World War II.
In 1942, the US War Productions Board passed edicts inside the US mandating fabric buying ceilings for clothiers and regulating the garment manufacturing process, going as far to ban pleats & cuffs on pants,
At a time when the government was promoting conserving fabric and banned pleats, cuffs and long jackets, wearing a zoot suit suddenly became illicit, subversive, and a sign of criminal activity. Yet many groups of African-Americans and Mexican-Americans and jazz musicians still wore their zoot suits with pride, getting their suits from underground garment stores.
This lack of patriotism, mixed with racism, led to greater tensions in major cities between whites, Mexican immigrants, and blacks. In Los Angeles, the tensions overflowed into the streets in what is known as the Zoot Suit Riots.
In the summer of 1942, a gang of zoot-suited Mexican-Americans known as the 38th Street Gang, led by local tough-guy Hank Leyvas, started a fight at a birthday party resulting in the death of 22 year old Jose Diaz. The story riled up the media, the governor and the LAPD, who blamed juvenile delinquency and proceeded to round up 600 zoot-suited Mexican-Americans in connection to the murder.
Eventually, 17 Mexican-Americans were charged with Diaz’s death, including life in prison for Leyvas. This spawned outrage in many Mexican-Americans, activists, hipsters, and celebrities, who claimed the youths were not given a fair trial, but also garnered the outrage of white communities and sailors, who thought of the zoot-suited youth as criminals
Over the course of the trial and conviction, many fights and miniature riots broke out in Los Angeles. Fueled by alcohol and the plethora of sailors on leave in Los Angeles, it became commonplace to read reports of sailors with clubs beating Mexican-Americans and ripping off their zoot suits.
The culmination of these fights was the Zoot Suit Riot, which lasted between May 30 and June 8 in 1943, when a vicious fight broke out between a group of zoot-suited Mexican Americans and a group of sailors and soldiers. Rumors of the fight spread throughout the bases in Los Angeles in the preceding days, resulting in a retaliatory strike.
On June 3, a group of 50 sailors and soldiers marched throughout Los Angeles, pulling zoot-suited Mexican Americans from theaters and restaurants, tearing their suits off their bodies, and beating them. Clashes between Mexican-Americans and sailors & soldiers grew larger and larger over the course of the next few days.
Military commander Clarence Flogg reported that there were “hundreds of servicemen prowling downtown Los Angeles mostly on foot – disorderly – apparently on the prowl for Mexicans.”
PBS puts it best:
The worst violence occurred on Monday, June 7. One Los Angeles paper printed a guide on how to "de-zoot” a zoot suiter: “Grab a zooter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up or burn them.” That night a crowd of 5,000 civilians gathered downtown. By this time the mob was no longer made up of only sailors from the Armory. Soldiers, Marines, and sailors from other installations as far away as Las Vegas eagerly joined in the assaults. Part of the mob headed south for the predominantly African American section of Watts and another group headed east for Mexican American East Los Angeles.
On June 8, military officials banned soldiers and sailors from Los Angeles city streets and LA City Council passed a measure banning zoot suits.
However, less than a month later, the movie “Stormy Weather” was released. One of the more famous scenes in Stormy Weather included Cab Calloway singing “Geechy Joe” in his all white zoot suit. In the film,
Movies like Stormy Weather cemented the zoot suit in jazz culture, and wowed the mainstream, white culture, gaining great acceptance and influencing mens suiting.
After World War II ended and fabric bands were lifted, the style of mainstream suits reflected zoot suits in their large lapels and wide shoulders. In 1948, Esquire released their new look which they called The Bold Look – eerily similar to the zoot suit.
The latter half of the 20th-Century saw shoulders getting bigger and bigger until the shoulder revolution of the mid-90s, and while most do not give credit to the zoot suit for influencing 20th Century fashion, certainly a case can be made that the zoot suit is the most influential garb of the 20th-Century.