zoot suit is a man's suit with wide-legged, tight-cuffed,
or "pegged," trousers (called tramas); and
a long coat with wide lapels, and wide, padded shoulders
(called the carlango). Often zoot suiters wear a felt
hat with a long feather (called a tapa or tanda) and
pointy, French-style shoes (called calcos). A young
Malcolm X described the zoot suit this way: "a
killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and
shoulders padded like a lunatic's cell."
Zoot Suits first gained popularity in Harlem
culture in the early 1930s. The word "zoot"
probably comes from the French word zut (meaning "damn!").
They were extremely popular with African-American youth
and also with young Latinos, most particularly in the
Los Angeles Chicano community. In March of 1942, the
War Production Board banned zoot suit production - allegedly
because it deemed the style wasteful of valuable suiting
material during wartime, but the measure was taken in
a climate of general anxiety and fear of latino youths.
The fashion persisted, despite restrictions placed on
the amount of fabric in the production of garments.
has been suggested by some that zoot suits originated
as a passive protest to measures during World War II
to limit nationwide consumption of many items due to
war needs, but this is unlikely, as fashionable
zoot suits in black and Latino communities long
before the imposition of such restrictions.
Zoot Suit Culture
an African American youth fashion, closely connected
to jazz culture, the zoot suit was co-opted by a generation
of Mexican American kids, who made it their own.
oversized suit was both an outrageous style and a statement
of defiance. Zoot suiters asserted themselves, at a
time when fabric was being rationed for the war effort,
and in the face of widespread discrimination.
suits were reserved for special occasions as a dance
party or a birthday party. The amount of material and
tailoring required made them luxury items. Many kids
wore a toned-down version of the "draped"
pants or styled their hair in the signature "ducktail."
Zoot Suit Origin
the exact origin of the loose-fitting “zoot suit,” worn
by Mexican-American and African-American youths in the
1940s, is obscure, its most important roots were among
Mexican-American youths, or pachucos. In the context
of World War II, this defiant gesture of group identity
put the Mexican-American zoot suiters into direct conflict
with another youth group—white servicemen stationed
on the West Coast. Wartime rationing regulations effectively
banned zoot suits because they ostensibly wasted fabric,
so a combination of patriotism and racism impelled white
soldiers to denounce Mexican-American wearers of the
zoot suit as slackers and hoodlums.
Zoot as “hepcats”
Zoot Suit, characterized by an oversized jacket with
large lapels, padded shoulders and baggy pants which
were cuffed at the ankles (with a wide brimmed fedora
hat generally accompanying) was first popularized by
young teenage "hepcats." It popped up in the
early 1940s among the "jitterbug" dancers
and was popularized when entertainers such as Frank
Sinatra began wearing them.
(4) History of “Zoot Suit”
suit was first worn in Harlem, New York but the fad
ended quickly when the War Production Board restricted
the amount of material that could be used in men's clothing.
brings to life a racially-charged trial of the 1940s,
in which a group of pachucos, Mexican-American gang
members, are charged and sentenced with the murder of
another Mexican American. Playwright Luis Valdez depicts
the trial of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the related
Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 in a combination of docudrama,
myth, and musical. Zoot Suit was designed to reach a
larger audience than those targeted by the improvisational
skits, or actos, he had produced for El Teatro Campesino,
a theater troupe he founded to support Hispanic labor
leader Cesar Chavez's efforts to unionize California
farm workers during the Delano Grape Strike of 1965.
Although he reached back into history for a specific
Mexican-American incident, Valdez's play concerns the
problems of all ethnic minorities in America.
in 1978, Zoot Suit sold out every time it played in
Los Angeles, though it met with less enthusiasm from
critics in New York when it debuted on Broadway. In
the play, the mythical character El Pachuco cajoles
Henry Reyna to resist the social injustices of an unfair
trial and fight for his community; he does so, but the
play ends without resolving his future. With its Brechtian-style
protest against social injustice and defamiliarization
techniques, such that the action is controlled and re-directed
by one of the characters, Zoot Suit set a new standard
for Chicano theater and Valdez was recognized as a leader
in American drama. A film version produced in 1981 starring
Edward James Olmos and Daniel Valdez (the playwright's
brother, who had played Henry in the stage production
as well) brought this vivid portrayal of social injustice
to movie theaters.