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 Zoot Suit  :: Zoot suits usa
Zoot Suits USA

A 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."

Mens Zoot Suits first gained popularity in Harlem jazz 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.

It 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.


(1) Zoot Suit Culture

Initially 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.

The 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.

Zoot 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."

(2) Zoot Suit Origin

While 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.

(3) Zoot as "hepcats"

The 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"

The 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.

Mens zoot suit 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.

Opening 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.


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