Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Recently I read that the zoot suit is making a comeback, which got me to wondering where it is coming back from, so let’s take a closer look.

Where the zoot suit got its name

Zoot was chosen because it rhymed with suit, as do these jazz slang descriptions of a zoot suit as having a drape shape and a reet pleat with a reave sleeve, ripe stripe, and stuff cuff. Yowza.

The zoot suit was exaggerated in every way. The basics of a zoot suit are a cartoonishly long suit jacket worn over ridiculously oversized trousers. 

  • The suit jacket had super-sized padded shoulders, double-wide lapels, and it draped down to the knees with sleeves that reached the fingertips. 
  • The trousers were pleated and the high-rise waistband was almost as high as a fisherman’s waders. The ballooned trouser legs were pegged (gathered at the ankles) snugly so as not to cause tripping while dancing energetically. If you remember the parachute pants fad from the ‘80s fad, it’s the same idea: Baggy pants tapering down to ankle-width, not unlike MC Hammer’s drop-crotch pants (U Can’t Touch This), which in turn resemble harem pants for the concubines at the sultanate. 
  • Key chains were long, drooping almost to the ground.
  • Hats (mostly porkpies and fedoras) all had an extra-wide wide brim and were topped with a rakishly angled feather.
  • Wide neckties were called belly warmers and the shoes were contrasting two-tone, once called spectator shoes.

Spectator shoes are called that because of their close association with outdoor sporting events

The Gentleman’s Gazette says most sources credit the invention of the spectator shoe to an English bootmaker. A hundred years ago, cricket shoes were all white, which of course got dirty during play. John Lobb covered the easily-soiled areas with black leather, and presto, the spectator shoe. 

The Roaring Twenties was the era of the Great Gatsby, art deco, and criminals

LondonBrogues.co.uk says as fashion entered the Roaring Twenties, “the spectator shoe began to garner an unwholesome reputation. Its flamboyant appearance was seen as ungentlemanly and people claimed it was a shoe favoured by lounge lizards, cads, adulterers, and divorcees.” It was called a co-respondent shoe because it was the kind of shoe that an unsavory co-respondent in divorce proceedings would wear.

When hotel guests put their shoes in the hall, it was so they would be cleaned at night and returned in the morning

As the story goes, the flashy shoes were a signal that a male co-respondent was in flagrante delicto inside that room.

The Jazz Age started in the United States in the Roaring Twenties

It glorified city life. Speakeasies were hot nightspots that featured dancing to the music of jazz musicians. The dancing was described by one Catholic publication as sinful behavior because “The music is sensuous, the female is only half-dressed and the motions may not be described in a family newspaper. Suffice it to say that there are certain houses appropriate for such dances but these houses have been closed by law.”

Who invented the zoot suit?

There are several people who took credit for it, but it is more likely that it evolved in more than one place. The first zoot suits were custom-made, not manufactured. Customers would buy an off-the-rack suit two or three sizes too large and have it creatively altered to their specifications by a tailor. Those who admired the look would order their own custom-made zoot suits. 

One hot spot for zoot suits was East Los Angeles, where 95% of the population was of Mexican descent

Within the area called East L.A. was a subgroup who called themselves pachucos.

Pachucos were members of Mexican-American street gangs from both sides the border between Mexico and the United States

They thumbed their noses at mainstream (Anglo) America with their flamboyant zoot suits. Cultural historians say pachucos were the first subculture to put their rebellion on display. Back in the 1940s, Los Angeles was experiencing an outburst of juvenile crime. The police department saw pachucos as degenerate gangsters responsible for the increase. In wartime Los Angeles there was even a zoot suit riot.

The pachuco lifestyle included dancing to the swing music that developed alongside jazz throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and ‘40s

The most well-known swing dances were the Charleston, the Jitterbug, and the Lindy Hop.* 

The Lindy Hop was characterized by “a high degree of physical vigor.”

Take a look at this fast, furious, and acrobatic two-minute video. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest dance sequences ever. In the film, the real-life Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers are called the Harlem Congaroos. Whitey’s troupe of professional swing dancers came out of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, the home of the Lindy Hop.

On the east coast, zoot suits were associated with Harlem’s African-American jazz musicians

These reefer-smoking hepcats set the style for others to follow. In her book Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style, Kathy Peiss says Harlem’s early zoot-suiters were “youths of the lower class, often marginally employed, who took pleasure in the night life and spent their time in social clubs and gangs.”

She goes on to tell us that one zoot-suited busboy said his inspiration was Clark Gable’s character in 1939’s Gone With The Wind

Peiss reminds us that “As the dashing Rhett Butler, Gable wore a long frock coat, fitted at the shoulders and waist, with loosely-draped trousers, a style that gave an impression of Civil War authenticity but that, in fact, merged the look of the 1860s with that of the 1930s.”

Culture

  • Ask Wikipedia and you’ll find that culture is “a broad term that encompasses the customs, beliefs, values, arts, and social behaviors of different groups of people. It is influenced by history, geography, religion, language, and many other factors.” 
  • Ask a sociologist and you’ll hear that a culture refers to the beliefs, norms, values, behaviors, and symbols of a defined group.
  • Ask a pachuco and you’ll learn theirs is a counterculture that rejects being assimilated into Anglo society.

Pachucos did that in two very distinctive and highly visible ways, both of which were designed to draw attention to themselves as members of a subculture. One of those very distinctive ways was the adoption of the outlandish zoot suit as their regular clothing.

Smithsonian says zoot suits were adopted by pachucos and hepcats as cultural symbols

Hep was jazz slang for being up-to-date and a cat was a pot-smoking jazz enthusiast. Hepcats and hipsters spoke jive** and wore zoot suits. The pachucos developed their own insider slang, as did the hippies when they came along in the 1960s (far out, groovy, bummer). An example nearly everyone is aware of is the insider lingo used by every texter today (CU, GR8, LMAO). Writing for the BBC, Rafael Estefania, a proud third-generation pachuco, says his third-generation zoot suits are definitely not costumes. “They are a way of life and a culture that transcends generations.”

Writing for Smithsonian Magazine, Alice Gregory called zoot suits jazzy and snazzy

“With its super-sized shoulder pads, sprawling lapels, and peg leg pants, the zoot suit grew out of the “drape” suits popular in Harlem dance halls in the mid-1930s. The billowing trousers were tapered at the ankles to prevent jitterbugging couples from getting tripped up while they danced. By the ’40s, zoot suits were worn by minority males in working-class neighborhoods throughout the country.” 

The Los Angeles Museum of Art has on display an original pristine-condition zoot suit made just before World War II. It cost the museum $78,000.

Malcolm Little said the zoot suit is “a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats, and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.”

Little, who bought his first zoot suit on credit, would later change his name to Malcom X.

The other very distinctive way pachucos identified themselves was with lowriders

Lowriders were automobiles that had been drastically altered to ride perilously close to scraping the road surface. The term first defined the car and gradually was extended to include the drivers and the subculture, too.

Low and Slow

The aim of lowriding was to cruise as slowly as possible, a backlash against the mostly Anglo hot rod culture that was built around speed and power in Southern California. Lowriders covered their cars with intricately detailed paintings and intense graphic art. The cars became stories on wheels and the lowrider culture enjoyed parading, being seen, and belonging to lowrider clubs.

In 1943 in Los Angeles, the stereotype was that pachucos were unpatriotic reefer-smoking juvenile delinquent Mexican-Americans

To get these unsavory lowriders off the streets, the city set minimum limits for automobile ground clearance  Pachucos got around the law by installing war surplus hydraulic systems that allowed them to raise and lower their cars at will. They’d cruise through town with their cars nearly scraping the pavement. When pachuco lowriders saw the police, they’d flip a switch and the car would instantly pop up to legal height. When the coast was clear, they’d drop the car back down again.

Those hydraulics systems and the batteries needed to power them typically filled the lowrider’s trunk. If you’ve haven’t seen the incredible acrobatics pachucos do with their lowriders, take a look at this eight-second clip.

NPR interviewed Fernando Perez, a pachuco lowrider

”It’s what I know, it’s how I am, how we are, the way I dress, the way I walk, the way I talk, the way I look,” Perez told Morning Edition. Another lowriding pachuco added, “It’s not a hobby for me. It’s my lifestyle and the one I grew up in.”

Professor of Chicana and Chicano studies Denise Sandoval says lowriding is multigenerational, with its culture creating “space for the family to celebrate community, to celebrate the culture, to celebrate cultural pride, the pride of being Chicano.”

Stereotypical nonconformists

For the pachucos, both their zoot suits and their lowriders are ideal examples of how people conform to standards established within their subculture of non-conformists.

 * * *

*Charles Lindbergh (Lucky Lindy) had recently been the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from North America to Europe and was the mega-celebrity of the day.

**She played June, the TV mother of Beaver and Wally Cleaver who always wore a simple string of pearls, even while doing housework. In the movie Airplane!, she was the only passenger who was able to translate jive. Watch the two-minute video here.

Bonus

Novelist Norman Mailer wrote The White Negro. In it, he described hipsters as individuals “with middle-class backgrounds (who) attempt to put down their whiteness and adopt what they believe is the carefree, spontaneous, cool lifestyle of Negro hipsters — their manner of speaking and language, their use of mild narcotics, their appreciation of jazz and the blues, and their supposed concern with the good orgasm.”

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.
Loading