Zazou

zazou

The Zazous were a subculture in France during World War II. They were young people expressing their individuality by wearing big or garish clothing (similar to the zoot suit fashion in America a few years before) and dancing wildly to swing jazz and bebop. Men wore large striped lumber jackets, while women wore short skirts, striped stockings and heavy shoes, and often carried umbrellas.

During the German occupation of France, the Vichy regime, in collaboration with the Nazis, and fascist itself in policies and outlook, had an ultra-conservative morality and started to use a whole range of laws against a youth that was restless and disenchanted. These young people expressed their resistance and nonconformity through aggressive dance competitions, sometimes against soldiers from the occupying forces.

The Zazous were to be found throughout France, but were most concentrated in Paris. The two most important meeting places of the Zazous were the terrace of the Pam Pam cafe on the Champs-Élysées and the Boul’Mich (the Boulevard Saint-Michel near the Sorbonne). The Zazous of the Champs Elysées came from a more middle class background and were older than the Zazous of the Latin Quarter.

The male Zazous wore extra large jackets, which hung down to their knees and which were fitted out with many pockets and often several half-belts. The amount of material used was a direct comment on Government decrees on the rationing of clothing material. Their trousers were narrow, gathered at the waist, and so were their ties, which were cotton or heavy wool. The shirt collars were high and kept in place by a horizontal pin. They liked thick-soled suede shoes, with white or brightly-colored socks. Their hairstyles were greased and long.

Female Zazous wore their hair in curls falling down to their shoulders, or in braids. Blonde was the favorite color, and they wore bright red lipstick, as well as sunglasses, also favored by some male Zazous. They wore jackets with extremely wide shoulders and short, pleated skirts. Their stockings were striped or sometimes net, and they wore shoes with thick wooden soles.

The Zazous were big fans of checkered patterns, on jacket, skirt or brolly. They started appearing in the vegetarian restaurants and developed a passion for grated carrot salad. They usually drank fruit juice or beer with grenadine syrup, a cocktail that they seem to have invented.

The Zazous were numbered in the hundreds rather than thousands and were generally between 17 and 20. There were Zazous from all classes, races, and both sexes but with apparently similar outlooks. Working class Zazous used theft of cloth and black market activities to get their outfits, sometimes stitching their own clothes. Some of the more bohemian Zazous in the Latin Quarter varied the outfit, with sheepskin jackets and multicolored scarves. It was their ironic and sarcastic comments on the Nazi/Vichy rulers, their dandyism and hedonism, their suspicion of the work ethic and their love of ‘decadent’ jazz that distinguished them as one of the prototype youth movements questioning society.

While they did not suffer like their contemporaries in Germany, the working class Edelweiss Pirates (a loose group of youth culture in Nazi Germany that developed in response to the strict regimentation of the Hitler Youth), the Zazou subculture represented an important dissident minority in a society of widespread complicity and acquiescence.

One fascist magazine commented on the male Zazou, ‘Here is the specimen of Ultra Swing 1941: hair hanging down to the neck, teased up into an untidy quiff, little moustache à la Clark Gable… shoes with too-thick soles, syncopated walk.’ The Zazous were directly inspired by jazz and swing music. A healthy, black jazz scene had sprung up in Montmartre in the inter-war years. Black Americans felt freer in Paris than they did back home, and the home-grown jazz scene was greatly reinforced by this immigration. Manouche Gypsy musicians like Django Reinhardt started playing swinging jazz music in the Paris clubs.

The Zazous probably got their name from a line in a song – Zah Zuh Zah by the black jazz musician Cab Calloway, famous for his Minnie the Moocher. Johnny Hess, a French crooner popular with the Zazous, released ‘Je suis swing’ in early 1942, in which he sung the lines ‘Za zou, za zou, za zou, za zou ze,’ selling more units than any previously released record in France. An associate of the Zazous, the anarchist singer/songwriter, jazz trumpeter, poet and novelist Boris Vian was also extremely fond of z words in his work. The long drape jacket was also copied from zoot suits worn by the likes of Calloway.

According to Pierre Seel, who, as a young Zazou, was deported to a German concentration camp because of his homosexuality, ‘the Zazous were very obviously detested by the Nazis, who on the other side of the Rhine, had [for] a long time decimated the German cultural avante garde, forbidden jazz and all visible signs of…degenerations of Germanic culture…’ When the yellow star was forced on Jews, non-Jews who objected began to wear yellow stars with ‘Zazu,’ ‘Goy’ (Gentile) or ‘Swing.’

Vichy had started ‘Youth Worksites’ in 1940, in what Zazous perceived as an attempt to indoctrinate French youth. As in 1870-1, France reacted to her shattering defeat by reforming existing institutions and creating new ones. The Vichy regime was very concerned about the education, moral fiber and productivity of French youth. They saw the Zazous as a rival and dangerous influence on youth, and as work-shy, egotistical and Judeo-Gaullist shirkers.

By 1942 the Vichy regime realized that the national revival that they hoped would be carried out by young people under their guidance was seriously affected by widespread rejection of the patriotism, work ethic, self-denial, asceticism and masculinity this called for. Soon, round-ups began in bars and Zazous were beaten on the street. They became Enemy Number One of the fascist youth organizations. ‘Jeunesse Populaire Française,’ (‘Scalp the Zazous!) became their slogan. Squads of young JPF fascists armed with hairclippers attacked Zazous. Many were arrested and sent to the countryside to work on the harvest.

At this point the Zazous went underground, holing up in their dance halls and basement clubs. The Zazous were suspected by the official Communist resistance of having an apathetic, even flippant attitude to the war in general.

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