February 9, 2012 6:22:00 PM
Cab Calloway knew something about extreme styles. In his The Hepster's Dictionary he listed "ZOOT (adj.): exaggerated." Just under it, necessarily, was "ZOOT SUIT (n.): the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit." He makes it sound patriotic, but some Americans looked at the zoot suit and were as horrified as only an older generation looking at the peculiarities of a younger generation can be. If the zoot suit was truly American, so were the anxieties it caused, and the race riots it sparked. Kathy Peiss, a professor of American history, has looked at these interpretations of a peculiar garment, its history, and its influence. It isn't all superficial fashion; her book Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style (University of Pennsylvania Press) is a deeply researched, scholarly, yet entertaining account of all aspects of a frivolous garment that Peiss dares to take seriously.
There is much that is not known about the zoot suit, such as the true story of its origins. Different tailors or performers have been credited with being the inventor of the zoot suit, but it cannot be attributed to any one source. It did have antecedents. Voluminous pants were called "Oxford Bags" and had been a British University fad in the 1920s. The "English drape" style of jacket became popular in the 1930s, with wide shoulders and roomy armholes. Clark Gable's long frock coat with loosely draped trousers in Gone with the Wind may have played a role; Cab Calloway himself punned that sharp dressers "were so impressed with Gable's long coat that they just 'followed suit.'" One story of the outfit's origins is that a Beale Street tailor in Memphis lengthened the coat so as to hide the shine in the seat of the pants. Custom tailors were always ready to make suits with measurements to order, and when the style was eventually settled upon, ready-to-wear versions were available at department stores.
The design of the suit had many modifications, and came in all colors, but it consisted basically of "the long killer-diller coat with a drape shape and wide shoulders; pants with reet-pleats, billowing out at the knees, tightly tapered and pegged at the ankles; a porkpie or wide-brimmed hat; pointed or thick-soled shoes; and a long, dangling keychain." It took the idea of a suit and stretched it almost to caricature. In one way it was a practical garment. A regular suit during the forties would have been too confining for the gymnastic movies of swing and jitterbug. The zoot suit's roomy pants accentuated leg movement, and pegging them at the ankles meant that they didn't get tangled with the clothes of other dancers.
The style spread nationwide, predominantly among non-white young men but also taken up by whites. The government was in favor of fashion and style for the upkeep of morale during World War II, but the zoot suit was an exception. The War Production Board under Frank Walton banned the suit, ostensibly because it used too much cloth that otherwise ought to have gone to the war effort. Limitation Order L-73 was issued in 1942, to prohibit the making of such clothes. It was not hard to get around the rules; if balloon pants could not be bought to order, for instance, a customer could buy pants of a huge size and have the waist and ankles taken in. Nonetheless, Walton declared, "Every boy or girl who buys such a garment and every person who sells it is doing an unpatriotic deed." Not everyone agreed; there was only one senator who would speak about the issue on the record, and he said that Walton had gone too far: "As long as these zoot suits aren't hurting the war effort, I say let them go ahead and wear them. Individualistic clothes are one of the prerogatives of young people." Others pointed out that extra material in dresses was a far more cloth-using problem, and what about those tails on tuxedoes that government dignitaries wore? The order had no teeth and few tailors ever got into trouble.
This was the only time in history that the nation attempted to become an arbiter of fashion. While the Limitation Order tried to prevent production of the garment, wearing of a zoot suit was never illegal, though in Los Angeles a ban on wearing it was debated. The councilman who proposed the ban did not cite the extra cloth used in production, but compared his ban to the local laws that stipulated how long bathing suits had to be because the zoot suit was just a public nuisance. Enough of his fellow members realized that a law against any full set of clothes would be unconstitutional. Nonetheless, the War Production Board had made the zoot suit into an outlaw garment, and increased its allure. The evidence that Peiss can find shows that while some blacks and Hispanics may have taken on the zoot suit as a conscious refusal to accept white culture, "... it was more often the case that men found in the style a compelling aesthetic that embodied a new sense of themselves at a moment of possibility and transformation."
The outlaw nature of the garment was perceived also by those who did not wear it, and elders in the Hispanic and black communities cluck-clucked as their sons dressed so outlandishly. The most famous confrontation over the style was the Zoot Suit Riot that occurred in Los Angeles in 1943. Sailors assigned to the area appointed themselves as fashion police, and started harassing and beating up Hispanic men who had the garment on. One sailor told the press, "We'll destroy every zoot suit in Los Angeles before this is over," but this did little to explain why the white sailors were also beating up non-whites who had on ordinary work clothes, nor why no white zoot-suitors were similarly assaulted. It was handy to say that this was an operation against the zoot suit, but it was a simple race riot. The riots spilled into theaters, where management was forced to turn on the lights so that the audience's attire could be checked. Young men were pulled from trolleys, and private homes were invaded. There were five days of rioting, with over a hundred people injured, a climax of growing discontent between races who had been competing for jobs and status. The newspapers in Los Angeles, especially the Hearst press, were hostile to the zoot suiters, associating them with criminality. The Herald-Express explicitly printed instructions on how to "de-zoot," as follows: "Grab a zooter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up or burn them. Trim the 'Argentine ducktail' that goes with the screwy costume." The police and FBI claimed to have reports of wives of sailors being robbed and raped by zoot suiters; the unfounded rumors would churn up hostility and keep the riots going. The press continued to claim that it was the suit itself that was the problem, not any racial hostility, which is to attribute a lot of power to some fancy clothes.
The suit is still around; Cab Calloway wore one for his turn in The Blues Brothers. A form of zoot suit was adopted by young people all around the world, causing international fretting among the elders, who saw the zoot suit as part of the secret weapons the west was deploying against youth, weapons such as "jitterbugging, boogie-woogie, Bikiniism," according to one Romanian commentator. Peiss's engaging book is best when it examines those who examined the zoot suit and tried to put some higher sociological meaning to it, and simply failed or came to contradictory conclusions. I think the best understanding that one can come to is that the younger generation dresses funny and it bothers the older generation. The older generation ought to have the maturity to laugh it off, but then that would break a cycle that is stable and enjoyed at some level by both sides. The next Goth you see, the next kid with a belt around his knees - smile and just be glad the get-up isn't an excuse for riots.