THE ZOOT SUIT
Few articles of clothing have caused riots that resulted in hundreds of arrests, scores of injuries and international headlines. But then again, few have the history or social gravitas of the zoot suit. More than just a jacket and trousers, it’s an item of clothing that defined its wearer as part of a culture that chose to stand outside of accepted society, unafraid of the consequences.
Not so much a crazy fashion fad, the silhouette defied an era of wartime conformity and racial prejudice and was undoubtedly a declaration of freedom and auto-determination amongst beleaguered minorities.
The suit itself comprises a wide-lapelled, often knee-length “killer-diller coat with a drape shape, and shoulders padded like a lunatics cell,” (as Malcolm X succinctly put it), while the deeply pleated trousers ballooned to some 32 inches at the knee and 14 inches at the ankle, below the inevitable long, looping watch chain.
Worn with a large felt fedora with feather, a fat tie and a spear-collared shirt, the look, when it first appeared amongst late 1930s hep cats in urban jazz saloons, was radical to say the least ‒ its unmistakable silhouette was as confrontational as any outfit from the punk era. As American author Ralph Ellison’s narrator in his 1952 novel The Invisible Man described:
Walking slowly, their shoulders swaying, their legs swinging from their hips in trousers that ballooned upward from cuffs fitting snug about their ankles; their coats long and hip-tight with shoulders far too broad to be those of natural western men.
Exactly who invented the Zoot remains under debate. Claimants have included Beale Street tailor Louis Lettes of Memphis, Charles Klein and Victor Baganto in Manhattan, Lew Eisenstein on 125th Street, and a Detroit retailer known as Nathan (Toddy) Elkus.
Chicago tailor and bandleader, Harold C. Fox, asserts he made the first zoot suit with the reet pleat, the reave sleeve, the ripe stripe, the stuff cuff and the drape shape in 1941, influenced by underprivileged urban black teenagers. “The zoot was not a costume or uniform from the world of entertainment,” he once said. “It came right off the street and out of the ghetto.”
Many others have also claimed that its creation belonged to poor black youth of the Great Depression era. Many, too broke to buy new kit, adapted their dad’s suits, nipping the jackets in at the waist, leaving the unalterable big shoulders and length, and taking the trousers in at the waist, hips and ankles.
Another great style that came out of necessity, this new look ‒ smart yet loose enough to dive about doing The Big Apple (the thoroughly gymnastic grand pappy of jive) ‒ became an essential part of Afro American culture.
Indeed, the word “zoot” was common currency in the jazz circles of the 1930s. Some say it was employed to denote all that was extravagant and slipped into the vernacular to specifically describe said item.
Some say that since it was common jazz slang to put a “z” at the beginning of words, so the suit became a zoot, while others claim it was first coined by Mexican-American “pachucos” as part of their street cant, “Caló”, and evolved from the Mexican-Spanish pronunciation of the word “suit”, with the “s” taking on the sound of a “z”.
However all are unanimous in their belief that the zoot is undoubtedly the most bizarre raiment ever worn by the American male.
And just as the word itself came to define something, ergo the zoot suit became a badge of ethnicity, a sub-cultural manifestation of its owner’s steadfast refusal to kow tow to the racist confines of the USA in the 1930s when, lest we forget, lynching was still common.
What is also certain is that the zoot spread through the working classes like wildfire (much like the modern day hooded sweatshirt) and was a most coveted item that some today might describe as bling. In his autobiography, Malcolm X (then Malcolm Little) remembers the exhilaration of buying his first zoot suit at the age of fifteen:
I was measured, and the young salesman picked off a rack a zoot suit that was just wild: sky-blue pants thirty inches in the knee and angle narrowed down to twelve inches at the bottom, and a long coat that pinched my waist and flared out below my knees. The salesman said the store would give me a narrow leather belt with my initial “L” on it. Then he said I ought to also buy a hat, and I did - blue, with a feather in the four-inch brim. Then the store gave me another present: a long, thick-lined, gold plated chain that swung down lower than my coat hem. I was sold forever on credit. … I took three of those twenty-five cent sepia-toned, while-you wait pictures of myself, posed the way 'hipsters' wearing their zoots would 'cool it' - hat angled, knees drawn close together, feet wide apart, both index fingers jabbed toward the floor. The long coat and swinging chain and the Punjab pants were much more dramatic if you stood that way.
And, just as in recent Hip hop times, Mexican-Americans and Hispanics robbed of their customs, values, beliefs and language adopted a style of clothing that was first pioneered by their black brethren and spoke of upward mobility and pride.
Undeniably, due to the amount of material used, you needed a good few bucks to acquire a zoot ‒ a luxury item brought out on special occasions and worn by the sharpened-up dudes. The flamboyant outfit set them apart from the crowd and, rather like the skinhead, punk or Ted clothing of the UK, was a look that told you all about its wearer’s interests and culture.
For African-Americans it was jazz-lovers, and for Mexican-Americans it was “Pachucos” - tough, vehemently heterosexual urban Hispanic dandies – who, more than anyone, dressed to impress, adopted an arrogant posture and were prone to drug-taking, minor crime and juvenile delinquency, and followed their own distinct way of life. Said attire marked you as part of that particular gang or subculture.
Accordingly, the zoot suit, like the styles of many a youth cult that followed, acutely polarised the community. It’s not hard to imagine the hatred felt by some poor white Americans (116,000 families had travelled from the dust bowls of the Oklahoma to the West in search of work in the 1930s) as they saw these upstart dandies parade their finery. Little did they know, or care, that many of these black and Hispanic “zooters” had toiled on the lowest rung as bus boys, labourers and factory workers for perhaps months and saved their every last penny to buy their threads. They didn’t spend their money in the saloons drinking away their misery. They dressed up instead.
Separate from these racial anxieties, the youth of the day embracing jazz ‒ basically black music that was an ideological manifestation far removed from the hit parade played on mainstream radio ‒ was a bone of contention.
Jazz spoke of sensuality and joy and openly defied segregation ‒ its adherents white, black and Hispanic mixed both on stage and on the dance floor. And the zoot suit was the easily recognised uniform of this new jazz ideology that visually challenged the norms of apartheid.
But it wasn’t just the rise of the scandalous “jazz” that precipitated what some observers called “the worst mob violence in Los Angeles history,” AKA the Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943. A number of other factors prevailed. The first was the war. The whole country, overwhelmed by an almighty surge of nationalism and paranoia regarding fifth columnists, included a citizenship that excluded minorities and those who weren’t white. Curiously, while the US were fighting the forces of fascism abroad the Nationalist racist pro-Aryan extremes, that so marked The Third Reich, were thriving and encouraged at home.
Civil rights were denied to most blacks, while anti-Mexican sentiment has long prevailed in the West. In the early 1930s, Los Angeles County deported more than 12,000 people of Mexican descent ‒ including many American citizens ‒ to Mexico. Those left were corralled in run-down corners of East LA and made to work for below minimum wage. It was in this climate that Chicano youth (and gang) culture emerged, while many whites, fuelled by said racially contentious articles in Californian newspapers, especially those owned by those of William Randolph Hearst’s, which traded in the frenzied stirring up of unabashed hatred, believed that pachucos were Mexicans who refused to both speak English and contribute to the war effort.
To further exacerbate the furore, in March 1942 the US War Production Board restricted the use of cloth by 26 per cent, resulting in what Esquire magazine called “streamlined suits by Uncle Sam”, causing the manufacture of the zoot suit to be banned. Underground tailors all over the US still produced the item however and reinforced a most visible divide between the predominantly white serviceman and the black and Hispanic zooters, whose outfit was viewed as a deliberate, scandalous and most obvious flouting of wartime rationing by drug-using unpatriotic hoodlums.
The zoot was a red flag to the already pissed off redneck bulls. The truth is that many pachucos had enlisted in the forces, while much of the cloth used existed way before war broke out and was old stock.
Another prescient factor was an incident known as The Sleepy Lagoon Murder, which in no way impinged on white California, yet still fueled animosity between whites and Hispanics. Accused of the 1942 murder of Jose Diaz, the gang known as the 38th Street Boys (comprising 22 defendants) was allegedly led by Henry Leyvas (who had enlisted in the merchant marines) and was the largest mass trial in Californian history. It played out “like a Hollywood movie,” and as such captivated the city.
The Sleepy Lagoon Defence Committee was formed by civil rights pioneer Carey McWilliams and consisted of leftists, communists, unionists, and Hollywood celebrities like Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, all of whose involvement further aggravated this controversial affair.
Normally the LAPD kept well out of minority murders but on this occasion felt the need to clamp down on what white Angelinos saw as a worryingly dangerous and violent zoot suit sub culture.
Of course, the trial was a farce. Presiding Judge Charles Fricke allowed jurors to go home at night where they read LA journalist’s racist slurs against pachucos, while the usually immaculate defendants were refused haircuts and a clean change of clothes.
The result was that 17 of the 22 defendants were duly convicted, which emphatically reminded LA’s Mexican community that they were indeed second-class citizens who would never be accepted in the land that had been theirs until the 1848 Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo.The agreemant , perhaps one of the most injust treaties in history, it was created to end the war (1846–48) between the United Stated and defeated Mexico and ‘forced’ the US to pay the paltry sum of $15 million to Mexico and to settle the claims of American citizens against Mexico up to $3.25 million for which they took ownership of the whole of California, half of New Mexico, most of Arizona, Utah , Nevada and huge chunks of Colorado and Wyoming (the southern parts of New Mexico and Arizona were peacefully purchased under the Gadsden purchase of 1853 for $10 million which equivalent to $280 million today),) while Mexicans in those annexed areas were offered the privilege of becoming American citizens or moving back across the new border. The ancestors of these pachucos were some of the 90% who chose to become US citizens.
Meanwhile whites, whipped up by a press that characterized all Mexican youth as dark-skinned hoodlums, became overwhelmingly paranoid, indeed terrified, of those who sported the zoot.
The fact that some poor working class whites also wore the fashion was immaterial – it was regarded as anti-American and those who wore it deserved a good beating (often from US servicemen or policemen) and that was that.
As a result, altercations broke out between serviceman and zooters all over California, two of which had a particular effect on the forthcoming riots. On May 30, 1943, a group of sailors and soldiers harassed a group of pachucas (female zooters) on Main Street in downtown LA and were battered by the ladies’ male counterparts as a result. Four days later, sailors were again routed by a gang of zooted Chicanos, causing a mob of off-duty LA coppers, who called themselves The Vengeance Squad, to further attack Hispanics on Main Street. The shit really hit the fan the following day after a barrage of taxis containing about 200 sailors turned up in East LA, attacked a group of mainly 12- and 13-year-old boys, clubbed them within an inch of their lives, stripped them naked and burnt their clothes in a big pile.
And thus the riots began.
As the journalist Carey McWilliams, a witness to the attacks, wrote:
Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot suiter they could find. Pushing its way into the important motion picture theatres, the mob ordered the management to turn on the house lights and then ran up and down the aisles dragging Mexicans out of their seats. Streetcars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes as young as 12, were jerked from their seats, pushed into the streets and beaten with a sadistic frenzy.
On one occasion a gang of sailors dragged two Chicano zoot suiters onto the cinema stage and, while the film carried on playing, stripped the boys naked and urinated on their clothing. Meanwhile the press stated that said attacks were perpetrated by “heroic serviceman” who were “cleansing their cities of human garbage.”
The most heinous violence occurred on Monday, June 7, after 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,” it instructed.
That night a crowd of 5,000 civilians gathered downtown alongside soldiers, marines, and sailors and headed south to the black neighbourhood of Watts, and east for Mexican-American East Los Angeles, beating up not only zooters but any Mexicans or blacks they could find. As Time Magazine later reported: “The police practice was to accompany the caravans of soldiers and sailors in police cars, watch the beatings and jail the victims.” Six hundred Chicanos were arrested and incarcerated.
One policeman was quoted after the riots as saying: “You can say that the cops had a ‘hands-off’ policy during the riots. Well, we represented public opinion. Many of us were in the First World War, and we're not going to pick on kids in the service.” Accordingly, after Councilman Norris Nelson called the zoot suit “a badge of hoodlumism”, the LA City Council criminalised the suit within the confines of the city.
Of course, to put this into perspective one has to realise that in 1943 at the height of the riots the hugely successful black jazz musical feature films, Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky, directed by Vincente Minnelli, were released, featuring zoot suits, while in the same year America’s favourite comedy duo Laurel and Hardy wore zoots in the film Jitterbug.
Furthermore, the song A Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal) was a huge hit in 1942 for several artists. “Dig a zoot suit with a reet pleat and a drape shape and a stuff cuff to look sharp enough to see your Sunday gal?” said the lyric.
The zoot suit had found a place in mainstream contemporary culture and still it caused riots.
The debacle was eventually contained not because of any humanitarian basis but for purely economic reasons. California's State Senators were only concerned about the adverse effect that events might have on the relationship between the United States and Mexico. As senator Dewey declared, “The riots might endanger the program of importing Mexican labour to aid in harvesting California crops.”
Accordingly, the Mexican Embassy formally complained to the State Department, and US Service Chiefs had no choice but to intervene on June 7, declaring Los Angeles off-limits to all military personnel and confining sailors and Marines to barracks.
By the middle of June the situation had calmed down in LA, but riots erupted elsewhere in California, as well as Texas, Arizona, Detroit, Harlem and Philadelphia, where two zoot-clad members of Gene Krupa’s chart topping band were giving a hiding. Meanwhile Detroit suffered the worst race riot in its history.
A prime manifestation of the old adage “You reap what you sow,” the zoot-suit riots had a profound effect on a whole generation of socially underprivileged teenagers who themselves would exert their influence on the US itself.
It was during the riots that young zoot-suiter and soon to be Chicano union activist Cesar Chavez became involved with community politics, which transformed California. Elsewhere, a certain young pimp, “Detroit Red”, AKA Malcolm Little, due to his role in the Harlem riots, embarked on a political journey that ultimately transformed him into the radical black leader, Malcolm X.
Furthermore, the seeds of Eme, the Mexican Mafia ‒ the most powerful crime syndicate in the US today ‒ were sown during the conflict. Eme founder and leader Rudolfo Cadenna’s father fell victim to navy thugs in 1943 and the mob boss never forgot. The melee also gave gang culture an almighty boost as even though many Mexican and black gangs already existed (such as The White Fence and The Businessmen), the riots served to validate their existence, strengthen their resolve and attract recruits, all of which created a massive surge in armed ethnic street gangs in post-war America.
And looking back, who can blame them? If I had gangs of sailors strolling into my neighbourhood and beating up innocent people, I too would form a resistance group. Ultimately, then, the debacle achieved the opposite of what was intended. It did not cleanse the area of mobsters; it actually turned many law-abiding young men on to the gangster life. Just as NF activities in East London in the seventies provoked the rise of Asian gangs like the Brick Lane Massive, so did the zoot suit riots prompt the rise of Californian gang culture?
But as you are now aware the furore wasn’t just about a suit.
Certainly, the item exerted considerable influence elsewhere. UK spivs took to big suits as proof, as with their Mexican counterparts, that they could afford and source the cloth denied to mere mortals by cloth restrictions during and after World War II. Jamaican settlers sported their versions as they alighted from the S.S. Windrush in London’s Tilbury Dock in 1948, thus influencing young Brits.
Also, post-World War II, Dior launched his New Look for women in which everything went big. American male fashion responded with a style that was heavily influenced by the zoot ‒ high-waisted, pleated peg trousers, heavily shouldered jackets with big lapels, wide kipper ties and spear-collared shirts ‒ which became almost a uniform for the stars of film noir such as Alan Ladd, Victor Mature and Jack Palance. Shortly after, I played my own part in the zoot suit’s inimitable journey.
Unnaturally obsessed with film noir as a lad in 1973, I was overjoyed to see a fashion shoot in a Club International nudie mag I’d purloined from a newsagent in my home town, which featured tailored zoots from Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Let It Rock store.
Almost sick with excitement, I realised that I could dress like that now, and two years later found myself in London buying vintage suits from Beaufort Market, big ties from Retro and black and white shoes from Acme Attractions. I’d wear this gear dancing to raw US imported funk in Crackers.
I even managed to get myself an ice cream pink Mal and Viv zoot from their store, which was now called Sex. Meanwhile I became a teenage zoot spotter ‒ eyes glued to the TV, clocking every stylish nuance of the aforementioned movies of 1943.
Subsequently, in 1980, having no truck whatsoever with some of the rather antiseptic futurist music and absurdly camp fashions that were all the rage at clubs like the Blitz, which I frequented, I turned the clock back and started dj’ing funk and Latin and wearing 1940s clothes again.
That summer, after a trip to New York, I decided to form my own Latin-funk band – Blue Rondo a la Turk – and, having discovered a book, The Zoot Suit Murders (which climaxes with the aforementioned riots), realised the social importance of the silhouette.
I also realised that the suit was ripe for revival, and that was how we, as a combo influenced by seventies funk and sixties jazz, should dress. Forties punk, no less.
In the meantime, Blue Rondo penned its first composition ‒ Me and Mr Sanchez, after its author, Thomas Sanchez . I then designed my very own zoot and commissioned Bob the Tailor of Aldgate ‒ whose pattern cutter was coincidentally a Chicano who had been involved in the aforementioned riots as a teen ‒ and started a night at Le Kilt (the first of the clubs to devote itself almost entirely to rare groove), which served as a necessary haven for all those of a similar stylistic persuasion.
Of course, the band, the club and the style took off like rocket, and soon I launched my own range of ready-to-wear zoot suits, in partnership with ex-Amen Corner saxophonist and style entrepreneur, Alan Jones, under the brand Sullivan Suits, which sold all over the country in shops such as Demob in London and Paradise Garage in Bristol.
Amazingly, headlines in The Face, L’Uomo Vogue, The New York Times, LA Times and Paris Match (who led with the headline “Zoot Alors”) proclaimed the global return of the style while uber designers such as, Giorgio Armani and Jean Paul Gaultier created collection after collection featuring watered down versions of the style until etbe oversized , large shouldered, peg trousered suit became the signature eighties style . Afterwards, I had fashion shows all over the world and designed zoot suits ‒ albeit with my own odd twists ‒ which were made by tailor Chris Ruocco of Kentish Town. They were worn by chart toppers Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, Adam Ant (who wore it for Live Aid) and Madness, to name a few. It still tickles me that a style created by dirt poor black teenagers fifty years previously ended up on the backs of global chart-topping British chaps 50 years later. I guess it wasn’t the first or the last time.
As a result of my endeavors, the country was soon festooned with fellas in oversized suits, long chains and correspondent shoes. The conceit was further propagated in 1982 when August Darnell of Kid Creole and The Coconuts fame fell on the zoot as his chosen look and, due to his chart success, totally eclipsed our usage (oddly Darnell was born on the same day as me, but 10 years before), and fair play to the man. He did it very well.
Today, as clued-up hep cats find the fashions of today rather predictable, the zoot is enjoying another renaissance. I just hope that any would-be Zootie McVouties can find a tailor like Bob of Aldgate to produce one of the quality it so deserves.
Join 399 other awesome people who subscribe to new posts on this blog.