A Cultural History of the Zoot Suit

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In the 1944 Tom & Jerry short "The Zoot Cat"—only the thirteenth cartoon ever made starring that famous duo—Tom's would-be girlfriend lays it on him straight: "Boy, are you corny! You act like a square at the fair, a goon from Saskatoon. You come on like a broken arm. You're a sad apple, a long hair, a cornhusker. In other words, you don't send me!" The sad cat goes out and buys himself some new duds from Smiling Sam, the Zoot Suit Man, prompting his wide-eyed gal pal to do a one-eighty.

 "You're really a sharp character! A mellow little fellow. Now you collar my jive!"

Around the same time on the American scene—but, culturally speaking, light-years away—a young Malcom X, then known as "Detroit Red," also sang the praises of the Zoot Suit, a "killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet-pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic's cell." (Apparently, people in the 1940's liked to rhyme more than they do today.) In his widely read autobiography, Malcolm X describes his first Zoot Suit almost in religious terms: "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...hat angled, knees drawn close together, feet wide apart, both index fingers jabbed toward the floor." (We won't even mention Cesar Chavez, the famous Mexican-American labor activist who wore Zoot Suits as a teen.)

What was it about Zoot Suits that united such disparate cultural icons as Malcom X, Cesar Chavez, and Tom & Jerry? The origins of the Zoot Suit, characterized by its wide lapels, padded shoulders, and baggy pants tapering down to narrow cuffs--and usually accessorized with a feathered hat and a dangling pocket watch—are shrouded in mystery, but the style seems to have coalesced in Harlem nightclubs in the mid-1930's, and then worked its way out into the wider urban culture.

Essentially, Zoot Suits were the pre-war equivalent of the sagging, low-hipped pants sported by some African-American youths in the 1990's, or the huge Afro hairstyles popular in the 1970's. Fashion choices can be a powerful statement, especially if you're denied more mainstream modes of expression because of your race or economic status.

Zoot Suits Move Into the Mainstream

By the time they were referenced by Tom & Jerry, Zoot Suits were well-ensconced in mainstream culture; you can bet that the studio execs at MGM would never have green-lighted this cartoon if the style were still restricted to Harlem nightclubs. The apostles of Zoot, you might say, were early 1940's jazz musicians like Cab Calloway who played in front of white and black audiences and were emulated in their dress by youths of all races, though not necessarily their elders. (Before and during World War II, jazz was the dominant cultural musical idiom in the U.S., much like hip-hop still is today, albeit in vastly mutated form.)

At this point, you may be wondering from whence the "zoot" in Zoot Suit derives. Most likely, it was yet another token of the vogue for rhyming in wartime America; "zoot" simply seems to have been a jazzy repetition of "suit." The young people who donned Zoot Suits as a mild form of rebellion surely enjoyed mystifying their parents with their snappy language and the strange names they assigned to household objects, the same way kids who spend all day texting like to throw out random, impenetrable acronyms like HOYU or NATC.

 

Zoot Suits Get Political: The Zoot Suit Riots

In late 1930's Los Angeles, no ethnic group adopted Zoot Suits with more enthusiasm than Mexican-American teenagers, some of them low-level gang members known as "pachucos." Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, however, the U.S. government instituted strict wartime rationing of wool and other textiles, meaning Zoot Suits, with their wide lapels and copious folds, were technically off-limits. Even still, many Angelenos—not only Mexican-Americans—continued to wear their old Zoot Suits, and to obtain new ones from the black market. Around the same time, L.A. was convulsed by the Sleepy Lagoon trial, in which nine Mexican-American pachucos were accused of murdering an innocent civilian (also Mexican).

In the summer of 1943, these explosive circumstances detonated when a group of white servicemen stationed in Los Angeles viciously attacked random pachucos (and other ethnic minorities) wearing Zoot Suits, the so-called "Zoot Suit Riots." Ostensibly, the aggressors were incensed by the waste of fabric entailed by Zoot Suits, as well as the flaunting of rationing laws by the youths wearing them--but the anti-Mexican feeling stirred up by the Sleepy Lagoon trial, combined with the unabashed racism of small-town soldiers stationed in a big city, were more likely explanations.

Amusingly, after the smoke had cleared, a California state senator alleged that the riots had been instigated by Nazi spies trying to estrange the U.S. from its Latin American allies!

The Afterlife of the Zoot Suit

In the U.S., no fashion trend ever goes truly extinct--even if there are no more 1920's flappers sporting bangs and curls or pachucos dressed in Zoot Suits, these fads have been preserved in novels, newsreels and magazines, and are occasionally resurrected as fashion statements (either seriously or ironically). The Cherry Poppin' Daddies landed their only Billboard hit in 1997 with the song "Zoot Suit Riot," and in 1975, "Zoot Suit" was a cut from The Who's ambitious rock opera "Quadrophenia." In 1979, a play called "Zoot Suit"—based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case and the Zoot Suit Riots--lasted for 41 performances on Broadway. What's more, the outlandish garb sported by inner-city pimps in countless exploitation movies is based on the Zoot Suit—and, of course, you can always watch "The Zoot Cat" on YouTube, not to mention various electrifying performances by Cab Calloway in full Zoot Suit regalia.