The zoot suit is an iconic fashion trend from the 1940s that continues to capture the public imagination. So, what makes zoot suits so fascinating?
The zoot suit is big and bold in nature. It’s hard to miss, with its characteristic shoulder padding, oversized lapels, draping fit, and wide-cut pants that taper to the ankle. In its heyday, zoot suits were made of brightly-colored fabrics. The men who wore them frequently accessorized with wide-brimmed fedora hats. While it was possible to buy a zoot suit in a store, many people chose to purchase oversized suits and amend them at the tailor.
The zoot suit was born in the jazz clubs of Harlem during the mid-1930s. From there, the trend spread to minority communities across the country. African-American and Mexican-American men, perhaps influenced by the likes of popular jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Cab Calloway, adopted the style in many American cities. Zoot suits could be seen in Chicago, Memphis, and Los Angeles. By the 1940s, the fashion trend was so well-recognized that it was featured in an episode of the cartoon Tom & Jerry.
The Political Significance of Zoot Suits
The extravagance of the zoot suit is one way disenfranchised communities used fashion to assert their identities during a period of upheaval. Famous activist Malcolm X wrote about the importance of the zoot suit in his autobiography. After the United States entered World War II and rationed the use of fabrics, donning an oversized suit became even more controversial.
In 1943, tensions erupted in Los Angeles between primarily white American servicemen and so-called “zoot suiters” (Mexican-American men who donned the suits). Later, a committee appointed by the Governor of California determined that racism was the central cause of the Zoot Suit Riots.
The Zoot Suit’s Cultural Legacy
Although the zoot suit craze faded in the 1950s, its legacy lives on in music and movies. The song Zoot Suit Riot by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and the costume worn by Jim Carrey in the film The Mask are two well-known examples. Unfortunately, today, it is very difficult to find authentic zoot suits from the 1940s. Zoot suits are so rare that in 2011, a Los Angeles museum paid $80,000 for an original suit!