An anonymous entertainer
jitterbugging alone on stage wearing a zoot suit costume. Notice the
zoot suit—Page 2
The song A Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal) was an
integral part of the Big Band era, when it was cool to be cool in America, but only
in certain circles. The vast majority of "circles" varied from conservative to
ultra conservative. Most of America was square. There were many more "not cool" people than cool people. The differences between them gradually caused friction, which heated up until it
boiled over into the streets of wartime Los Angeles. A succession of riots
lead to some deaths and many arrests, rapidly bringing to a close this brief,
but colorful period in American history.
The mentality behind A zoot Suit (For My Sunday
Gal) was an integral part of the zoot suit scene. What mentality did the song and the suit
give voice to?
zoot suiters—the men, the women
At core, zoot suiters were rebellious outcasts, young minority groups
who believed themselves victims of social suppression and unfairly-treated
social rejects. They resented the culture that had cast them out and
were determined to defiantly flaunt what made them different. Their odd
manners and dress were symbols of defiance calculated to prove the worth of their own values and way of life. Their peculiar
manner of speech—their jive talk—echoed in the zoot suit song, was
a flag that signaled their differences; it was meant to distance those who
didn't belong, as was their flamboyant style of dress.
Zoot suits were popularized and promoted chiefly by Mexican Americans,
African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Italian Americans, and Filipino
Americans during the late 1930s and 1940s. The style is thought to have
originated in El Paso, Texas during the 1930s. Hence, many chicanos
or Mexican Americans refer to El Paso as El Chuco.
The Zoot suits, with
their yard-long key chains, high-wastes, wide lapels, wide legs, tight
cuffs, and glistening shoes, were not merely articles of clothing or a
style of dress; they were a symbol of an outré lifestyle
and of all the divisive issues that simmered beneath the surface of daily
life. Many of the men who wore them believed that they had been isolated from
society through no fault of their
own; they felt caught in a world they believed was not as cool as their
The Mexican American male zoot suiters called themselves pachucos
(in Salvadoran culture chuco means dirty). They spoke their own dialect of Mexican Spanish, called Caló or
Pachuco. Mexican American woman who dated zoot suiters or who had
similar feelings about their lives sported their own version of a man's zoot
suit and called themselves pachucas. These women often wore a V-neck
sweater or a long, broad-shouldered coat, a knee-length pleated skirt,
fishnet stockings or bobby socks, platform heels or saddle shoes, dark
lipstick, and a bouffant hairdo. Sometimes they donned the same style of
zoot suit that their male counterparts wore. With their striking attire, pachucos and pachucas constituted a new generation of Mexican American
Etymologists believe that he word zoot is a rhyming compound based
on the word suit. It was part of their Caló slang that
stemmed from the Mexican Spanish pronunciation of the English word suit
with the s sounded as z
|Cab Calloway performing in a
the zoot suit
The zoot suit and A
Zoot Suit were statements of these views, and more. In effect, the
zoot suit was a party costume worn on the streets or at
weddings, galas, and dances—anywhere flamboyant
dress-up was acceptable. And the Big Bands were part of this
celebration, the source of the Swing they danced to.
Why have a good time when the nation was at war? Many Zoot suiters had a nasty
little secret that gave them something to crow about: they were accidentally
or deliberately overlooked by draft boards because of their immigration status.
others were classified 4-F, the draft board designation for physically,
psychologically, or morally unfit for service.
True, many zoot suiters did not escape the war's impact. In time the
draft caught up with some, while others eventually volunteered. Some served
with distinction, fought, were wounded, or died. And most had hard-working
families at home to worry about or brothers and sisters in the military.
But the bulk of zoot suiters had good cause to believe themselves immune
from the kinds of bad news that was filling newspaper pages. theycould care
less about who just won or lost a major battle in far
away Europe or Asia or whether the tide of war might soon be turning in
favor of the U.S.. theywere largely oblivious to such matters.
Moreover, they had good reason to believe that living conditions for them
would remain the same after the war. They were bored and had little else to
do but party; so what did they have to lose by having a ball?
For reasons like these, as a social class Zoot suiters were cool at a time
when cool was out (not in) for the rest of the nation. They were young, second-class jive cats who were out of work at a
time when factories were buzzing full-time and out of uniform when twenty
million men were fully committed to war.
But others in America did have something to lose. For America, the
age of the flapper was dead and gone forever; the U.S. was now reeling from
the double blows of depression and world war. Garish fabrics and bright
colors were out; blacks and grays and olive drab were in. This was no time
for a block party as far as the rest of the country was concerned; this was
a time to wear black.
The full-length jackets and sleeves, the copious folds in extra-long
baggy pants and cuffs, were making the wrong statement at the wrong time. It
was bad enough that cloth was rationed. Far worse, mothers were sewing blue
and gold stars on small blue and white pennants hanging in frontroom
windows, each star a sign of a son or other family member killed or wounded
in the Service. To the rest of the nation, zoot suits were a symbol for
the zoot suit riots
Both sides resented each other and clash among the factions was inevitable. It wasn't long
before the zoot suit style of dress, which had started in the late 30s among
Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Italian Americans as a symbol of
social unrest, evolved into a street gang fashion.
The zoot suit was not worn by everyone; one estimate puts the figure at
twenty-to-thirty thousand. But that was enough to foment
trouble. In 1943, for ten days a series of
so-called Zoot Suit Riots broke out in Los Angeles between white servicemen, civilians,
and police on one side and Chicano zoot suiters, on the other, culminating in arrests and
trials, some on trumped up charges.
At their height, the riots involved several thousand men and women
fighting with fists, rocks, sticks, and sometimes knives. This succession of
which came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots, led to property and bodily
damage and many arrests, but no deaths. Outrage and police crackdowns
rapidly brought to a close this period in American history.
- Explore the Zoot Suit Riots at the Wikipedia page on the
the truth and nothing but
These events are still controversial and sensitive in some circles.
The full truth may be hard to find, even after all these
years...and in part because of all these years.
Zoot suiters were not alone; they were not the first subculture to
express their feelings of rebellion and individuality through their dress,
and they will not be the last. One outstanding example comes from the
Zazous of WWII France, a group of rebellious Parisian youth who balked
at the the restrictions imposed on their free-living life style by the Nazi
occupation and the Vichy regime.
Surprisingly, the word Zazou probably was inspired by Cab
Calloway, the famous American Black Jazz artist. Here's the story of how
Parisian youth were jazz and swing music fans long before war came to
France; Jazz was alive there when the Germans took over the city. From
their parents they knew about the Black jazz scene that had sprung up in
Montmartre during the inter-war years when Black American entertainers, who
felt freer in Paris than they did back home, had entertained their parents
Cab Calloway had been a prominent entertainer during his protracted
sojourn in Paris in the years between the two World Wars. He'd appeared in
Montmartre and at many other night spots. The French were familiar with
American Zoot Suiters and Zoot Suits through the music Calloway and other
American entertainers had played and the Zoot Suits he and some of the
others had worn.
The Jazz scene lingered long after the Americans left. French musicians
like Stephane Grappelli, who'd learned Jazz from Black entertainers during
the '20s, were actively recording and playing their brands of Jazz in
cabarets; Gypsy musicians like Django Reinhardt, who soloed and teamed with
Grappelli, helped keep Le Jazz Hot alive by recording and playing swinging jazz music in
Then, early in 1942, a popular French crooner named
Johnny Hess released a song called Je suis swing in which he sung
the lines Za zou, za zou, za zou, za zou ze.
Hess's lines were strongly reminiscent of a line in a song often sung by
Calloway called Zah Zuh Zaz. The song spoke to them of the wild
times and the good old days when Paris once was free.
That's all the Parisian youth needed; it set them on fire. theycoined
the word zazou, which recalled the title of Calloway's song, and named
themselves after it. (Notice the phonetic resemblance between zah
zuh and zazou.) They patterned their style of walk and dance after American Zoot
Suiters and their style of dress after the Zoot Suit. Cab and his Zah, Zuh,
Zaz had coalesced and set in motion the Zazou movement.
A staged cast picture of a modern French play about zoot suiters
depicts the essence of the WWII Parisian Zazou lifestyle.
The costumes in the photo are
unrealistically exaggerated for theatrical purposes and do not
accurately represent clothing styles worn on the street; the fabrics, cuts
and colors are too colorful and ornate. But the costumes make an effective point about
clothing styles and the effect their wearers wanted to achieve.
Zazous of WWII had created a subculture in France that was inspired by zoot suiters in
America during World War II, but their cause was different. During the German
occupation of France, the fascist Vichy regime, which had collaborated with the
Nazis, had forced an ultra-conservative morality down their throats. It had enacted a battery of laws aimed against
what ultraconservative Frenchmen saw as a restless and
disenchanted youth. The Zazous expressed their resistance to this
oppressive regime through their nonconformity.
For the most part, Zazous were simply young Parisians asserting their
individuality. theydid this through a variety of means. They held aggressive
and combative dance
competitions, sometimes brazenly inviting German soldiers and making them
victims of their aggression. They wore excessively big or garish clothing modeled after American zoot suit
fashionry at a time when clothing was rationed. And, like zoot suiters, they
danced wildly to swing jazz and bebop.
amount of material used to make a suit, which was as excessive as possible
given fashion and clothes rationing, made a comment on Government decrees
rationing clothing materials. Men wore extra large lumber jackets, which
hung down to their knees and which were outfitted with many pockets and
several half-belts. Their trousers were narrow but gathered at the waist. Their ties,
which were made of cotton or heavy wool, also were gathered. Their shirt
collars were high and kept in place by a horizontal pin. They favored
thick-soled suede shoes and white or brightly-colored socks, and their
hairstyles were greased and long. They frequently wore sunglasses, perhaps
to symbolize that they were looking the other way where the Nazi occupation
Zazou women also wore garish clothing—short
skirts, striped stockings and heavy shoes; and they and often carried
umbrellas, perhaps to symbolize the metaphorical rain that was falling on
their lives. They wore their hair in curls that fell to their shoulders or was
braided—blonde was a favorite color—and
they wore bright red lipstick. Ladies wore
sunglasses and sported jackets with extremely wide shoulders
like their male counterparts; or they wore
short, pleated skirts. Their stockings were striped or sometimes netted, and
they wore shoes with thick wooden soles.
Hear and see Calloway sing and perform Zaz Zuh Zaz in two separate
recordings (The Muse thanks YouTube):
- See him in a montage of several different movie performances. The accompanying music is his 1933 recording of Zah Zuh Zaz:
Notice his scat, bebop, dance steps, zoot suit, and the panache feather in his zoot suit hat. The lines near the song's end must have had a special appeal
for the Zazous. It goes: There's no need for them to be blue/'cause zah
zuh zaz will always see them through.
- A Zah Zuh Zaz performance filmed in 1934 at the Cotton Club in
Harlem, uptown New York City. Notice the mock up of the 1930s vintage TV set:
More About Zoot Suits and zoot suiters
Explore more about zoot suiters and the zoot suit era. Visit these
other web sites:
- Visit the WTTW11 page at the web site for the PBS the
American Experience television series called the Zoot Suit Riots. See historic pictures of suits being worn by zoot suiters
in the 1940s when the suits were in. See other original
photographs from the era. Visit the PBS web site page about the Zoot Suit Riots
produced by the American Experience
- Learn more about the zoot suit, its origin, style, and
history, at the Wikipedia page on the subject:
- Read the critically-acclaimed play called Zoot Suit.
Zoot Suit is written by Luis Valdez,
whom some call the best playwright on the
Mexican-American stage. The play is based on the Zoot Suit Riots of 1940s Los Angeles and the
celebrated Sleepy Lagoon murder case of the time. Explore the mores and
attitudes of the people of that era.
- Then try the 1982 movie based on the Valdez play, also called Zoot
Suit. Zoot Suit is directed by Luis Valdez, the playwright himself, and stars Edward
James Olmos, one of the foremost Mexican-American actors of our time, and the
writer-director's brother, Daniel Valdez.
From left to right, below, a movie, a play, a book that
concentrates on the riots, and a book that concentrates on the legal
aftermath of the riots. The fifth book focuses on Zoot Suit women,
their culture, and their lives.
Look for French books about the Zazoo at Amazon:
Olmos plays a wild, flamboyant, hectoring, all-seeing figure called El
Pachuco, a Greek chorus with an attitude. Zoot Suit is a landmark
Latino work directed by Luis Valdez, an important
figure in Chicano theater. Valdez based his acclaimed play on the zoot-suit
riots of 1940s Los Angeles, when a group of young Chicano men were
railroaded into jail on a murder charge.