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Essay: Racism and the Zoot Suit

by Amy de la Haye on 28 April 2020

Amy de la Haye explores the zoot suit's subcultural power over time, from its organic beginnings in Harlem jazz clubs, becoming a fuse for race violence in forties California, to its eighties revival and induction into fashion history.

Amy de la Haye explores the zoot suit's subcultural power over time, from its organic beginnings in Harlem jazz clubs, becoming a fuse for race violence in forties California, to its eighties revival and induction into fashion history.

The zoot suit was first seen in the 1930s in Harlem’s swing clubs and dance halls. It was a subcultural style, not the creation of one particular designer or tailor. It comprised a very long, single-breasted, waisted jacket with broad padded shoulders, wide lapels, two breast and two diagonal side pockets and multi-buttoned wrists, typically brightly coloured. Trousers, worn almost to the armpits, were cut ultra-wide, tapering from a deeply pleated waistband to narrow cuffs, in order to permit complete ease of movement but avoiding being a tripping hazard whilst the wearer was Lindy Hopping. The zoot suit was teamed with a shirt, patterned tie, and sometimes a doe-skin waistcoat; while a hat (pork pie, fedora or broad brimmed sombrero) and ‘knob-end’ shoes, made from light-tan coloured calfskin combined with colourful suede, provided the finishing touches. Core to the look was a long watch chain that swung in a loop from waistband to below the jacket hem.

Dancing in a zoot suit in the 1940s.

It is generally accepted that the origin of the term 'zoot suit' was drawn from jive talk and bebop rhyming slang (zoot rhyming with suit). The style was brought to wider public attention once adopted by leading jazz musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway.

Cab Calloway and his band, performing 'Geechy Joe', in Stormy Weather (1943).

Whether East London’s costermongers or Irish and Puerto Rican immigrants in New York, working class communities both occupational and regional have always had their own distinctive style codes. For the 1940s Harlem community–predominantly Black and Latino people–, donning a flamboyant zoot suit proclaimed, 'I’m here, I’m loud and I’m proud!' Conveying both pride and unabashed conspicuous consumption, wearing zoot suits was an unprecedented refusal to be subservient, second-class citizens.

Fifteen-year old Malcolm Little–better known as minister and human rights activist Malcolm X–moved to Harlem in the late 1930s where he bought his first zoot suit, paid for on credit on the recommendation of a friend who was one of the tailor’s best clients. Later in his life, Little would recall: '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.’ (X and Haley, 2007: 135). [1] [2]

When fabric rationing was introduced in the US in March 1942, this counter-cultural sartorial expression–which required vast quantities of fabric to produce–was rendered illegal overnight. However, for a price, some back-street tailors were prepared to break the rules. For disenfranchised and disenchanted young people of colour, both Black and Latinx, wearing the suit came to serve further as an emblem of subversion, defiance and group identity. Whilst the zoot suit was predominantly a male expression, female zoot suiters donned a similar style of jacket and chain, which they wore with a skirt, fishnet stockings and high-heeled court shoes. Young men who could not afford new clothes bought oversize second-hand suits to achieve the general look and display their sub-cultural allegiance (as seen below).

Embed from Getty Images
Walker Roberts, 12, Henry Campbell, 14, and Morris Jackson, 13, show off their new "zoot suits" - tuxedos looted from a formalwear shop during the Harlem riot of August 1943.

During the first week of June 1943, in mid- and downtown Los Angeles, riots erupted. One of the most potent images from this civil unrest was that young Latin, African and other ethnic minority young men (along with a handful of Caucasians) had their precious zoot suits slashed with knives. They were also clubbed and publicly stripped to their underwear. The aggressors were mobs of off-duty police officers and sailors out on shore leave: they had dubbed the zoot suit, and its heavy fabric requirements, as unpatriotic and even treasonous given the defiance of wartime fabric rationing.

These violent incidents formed part of wider riots, which had started following the California police's reaction to the murder of 22-year-old José Díaz, a jazz-loving, zoot suit-wearing farm worker who had been due to enrol in the US Army the following week. The police had dismissed his tragic death as evidence of gang culture and an immigrant crime wave, and had adopted a rough justice approach, which pushed existing tensions between white and minority communities to boiling point. The press dubbed these terrifying acts of violence and humiliation the Zoot Suit Riots. The stark reality was that whilst style may have formed a catalyst, the underlying motive was racism. The Zoot Suit Riots were just one of a number of race riots in America that year; there were others in Harlem, New York; Beaumont, Texas; Detroit, Michigan and Mobile, Alabama.

Blue Rondo À La Turk, performing 'Me & Mr Sanchez', 1982

Despite–or because of–this violence, the zoot suit was to become an icon of rebellion and swaggering sub-cultural style for decades to come. It informed the suits worn by wartime spivs and Teddy Boys from the early fifties, and was more diligently revived in the early eighties when, alongside New Romantics and Blitz Kids, it was worn and popularised by singer Kid Creole of King Creole & the Coconuts, and Chris Sullivan, club entrepreneur and lead singer of jazz pop band, Blue Rondo à la Turk. While Yohji Yamamoto’s radical oversized tailoring seen on the Paris catwalks has been interpreted as referencing Dickensian waifs, it's not too far a stretch to point to the zoot suit as a contemporaneous influence.

Promotional material from the 1994 V&A exhibition 'Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk'.

Not only a popular outfit for successive generations, the zoot suit has also become included in the institutional fashion canon. When I worked as curator of 20th century dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum (1991-99), I was one of the curators of the Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk exhibition (1994) - the first time sub-cultural dress was collected and exhibited within a museum. Pre-internet and with no budget to travel, I was unable to source an original zoot suit, which was a cause of much anxiety. It was vital historically that the style was represented, and zoot suits were the first in the planned chronological sequence of sub-cultures that an exhibition visitor would experience. Our solution was to invite Chris Sullivan to commission a revival-style suit from his own tailor. I wish I had known then about Roger Burton’s extraordinary Contemporary Wardrobe collection, just a few tube-stops away, that housed one of these rare suits! More recently, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) purchased a zoot suit, paying a staggering $80,000 at auction, which was exhibited in their seminal Reigning Men exhibition (2016).

Replica zoot suit, designed by Chris Sullivan and made by Chris Ruocco tailors in 1994, displayed with 1940s shoes. Exhibited in Streeststyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk (V&A, 1994) and now part of the museum’s permanent collection. The height-adjustable mannequins were designed to provide the proportion of a head, with an abstract metal-cut out, that actively avoided fashionable conventions of beauty, race and gendered identities.
Conveying both pride and unabashed conspicuous consumption, wearing zoot suits was an unprecedented refusal to be subservient, second-class citizens.

Today, across the globe many ethnic minority peoples are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis, occupying frontline jobs, and those without work facing the worst of food and other essentials shortages. Time and time again, we see the general public turning upon people of colour in times of crisis, with many Chinese expats and students experiencing racist abuse because of COVID-19’s genesis in China (a situation clearly not helped by President Trump inaccurately defining the outbreak as the ‘Chinese virus’). And, yet again, there are reports of police being especially heavy-handed with people of colour, as seen on this viral video from 10 April 2020, which shows a man being forcibly removed from a Philadelphia bus for not wearing a face mask. In the 1940s, sub-cultural style provided an audacious challenge to the mainstream: today, the distinctions of fashion are less overt. The final piece in this Fashion in a Time of Crisis series will explore the social, industrial and stylistic legacy of the coronavirus, although we are bound to experience the effects for years to come.

[1] X, Malcolm and Haley, Alex [1964] 2007. The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley. Penguin

[2] Little worked as a barman, pimp, hustler and drug dealer before converting to Islam in prison, changing his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and becoming an American Muslim minister and human rights activist. He was best known as Malcolm X.

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