Fashion History · fashion resistance · Uncategorized

Zoot Suit: the Harlem fashion trend and how it all began.

I received a request the other day to find out where all of the excess fabric came to make the zoot suits popular in the 1940’s. To truly understand the zoot suit, it is important to understand the political and social climate of the time in which it was created and worn.

Lets start with America in the 1930’s…at the beginning of the 1930’s nearly one quarter of the wage-earning population was unemployed—the stock market had crashed the previous year and much of the country was suffering from an unforeseeable end to poverty. While many Americans has little to no money to spare, nearly every home did have a radio. Music was a welcome distraction from everyday life, and offered an escape. Prohibition remained in effect until 1934. American politics were torn between the “far left” (socialists and communists) and the “far right” (American fascists and Nazi sympathizers). The civil rights movement hadn’t even begun to get it’s feet on the ground. All in all, it was a bleak and desperate time. The depression persisted through the 1930’s, despite Roosevelt’s “new deal”, and at the end of the decade, America was drawn into World War II.

While it’s exact beginning is unknown, the origination of the zoot suit is long thought to be Harlem, New York. In the 1930’s and 1940’s Harlem was a hub for critical thinking, creativity, and activism. Jazz culture thrived, swing was the rage, and fashion made a bold statement. The youth of Harlem, who often felt under-represented and unnoticed, took to both music and fashion as a form of rebellion and expression—wearing a zoot suit was seen as a declaration of pride in one’s self and one’s culture, and an embrace of the freedom found in self-expression.

Initially, zoot suits were created by cutting down extra large double-breasted business suits or “drape” suits, possibly hand me downs from older generations. These were tailored down to create a more dramatic silhouette, namely a long jacket with extreme padding in the shoulders, narrow in the hips, accompanied by wide baggy, pleated trousers ending in narrow hemmed cuffs. These were often worn with the “porkpie” hat and brightly colored neckties.

Zoot suit style soon spread to New Orleans, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Though it gained popularity it was never available in department stores, it always required a tailor or someone skilled in sewing to adapt an existing garment to something in the zoot suit style. The zoot suit was soon co-opted as a generational style for young Mexican American men on the west coast, commonly called Pachucos, and amongst Jewish youth on the east coast.

“A killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.” ~ Malcolm X

In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s the United States was embroiled in World War II. Clothing rationing was in full effect, and citizens were limited to the amount and quality of the materials they could buy. Wool was off-limits, so manufacturers turned to rayon and cotton, which were not under restriction yet. Wartime restrictions included limits on the amount of fabric that could be used for suits and elements such as overlapping pleats, big cuffs, and large pockets were all prohibited. Suit manufacturers began producing more narrow versions of the suit, with single-breasted pockets and in brighter synthetic fabrics. And so zoot suits became even more colorful and eye-catching. As one can imagine, as this happened, zoot suits drew attention and were deemed a “waste of fabric” by americans with little to no understanding or acceptance. Over time a perception grew that zoot suits were “unpatriotic”, and while they were never against the law, officials did threaten those making or selling the style with fines of up to $10,000 and a year in jail. Yet they continued to be made by “bootleg tailors” because for many they were a symbol of cultural pride and freedom.

In 1943, a series of riots, now referred to as the “Zoot Suit Riots”, broke out in Los Angeles between civilians and sailors against young Mexican boys and men wearing zoot suits. Suits were forcibly ripped and torn off bodies, and young men were brutally beaten. This level of violence was more about race relations in Los Angeles than it was about fashion, fashion was just used as the excuse. As the week passed Filipino and African-American youth also became targets of racial beatings. Not surprisingly, the victims of assault—the youth of color, were the ones jailed. Finally, in June of 1943, things died down when U.S. Military personnel were barred from leaving their barracks and Los Angeles issued a ban on zoot suits. Similar riots occurred across the country including Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Oakland.

“Four boys came out of a pool hall. They were wearing the zoot-suits that have become the symbol of a fighting flag. Police ordered them into arrest cars. One refused. He asked: “Why am I being arrested?” The police officer answered with three swift blows of the night-stick across the boy’s head and he went down. As he sprawled, he was kicked in the face. Police had difficulty loading his body into the vehicle because he was one-legged and wore a wooden limb. Maybe the officer didn’t know he was attacking a cripple.” ~ Al Waxman, Eastside Journal

M.2011.94a-b
Man’s Zoot Suit United States, 1940–42, Wool plain weave and twill. Purchased with funds provided by Ellen A. Michelson, M.2011.94a-b, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.

Today, extant zoot suits are hard to find. Many were destroyed and many were likely turned into other garments as the years passed and they fell out of style. However, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is lucky enough to have one in it’s collection, and they have generously created a garment pattern of the above zoot suit, illustrating how it was created. It is available for free download as part of LACMA’s Pattern Project: Undertaking the Making. You can find it here (halfway down the page).

For more reading, be sure to check out two fabulous books on zoot suit fashion:

Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

The Little Black Dress and Zoot Suits: Depression and Wartime Fashions from the 1930s to the 1950s (Dressing a Nation: The History of U.S. Fashion)

If you have other topics you’re interested in learning about, feel free to let me know!

References:

PBS. Zoot Suit Riots. [Online]. Available: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh//amex/zoot/eng_sfeature/sf_zoot_text.html

Gregory, A. (2016). A Brief History of the Zoot Suit. [Online]. Available: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/brief-history-zoot-suit-180958507/

 

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