Zoot Suit

The Mask

A zoot suit is a suit with high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed, pegged trousers, and a long coat with wide lapels and wide padded shoulders. This style of clothing was popularized by African, Mexican, and Italian Americans during the late 1930s and the 1940s. It started during the Jazz Age in Harlem and slowly spread throughout other ethnic-neighborhoods across America. Malcolm X was known to have loved zoot suits in his early days as Detroit Red, a Harlem drug dealer, racketeer, and pimp. In Britain the bright-colored suits with velvet lapels worn by Teddy Boys (young men wearing clothes inspired by dandies) bore a slight resemblance to zoot suits in the length of the jacket. Often zoot suiters wear a felt hat with a long feather and pointy, French-style shoes. A young Malcolm X described the zoot suit as: ‘a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.’ Zoot suits usually featured a watch chain dangling from the belt to the knee or below, then back to a side pocket.

The amount of material and tailoring required made them luxury items, so much so that the U.S. War Production Board said that they wasted materials that should be devoted to the World War II war effort. This extravagance, which many considered unpatriotic in wartime, was a factor in the Zoot Suit Riots, a series of riots in 1943 that erupted in Los Angeles between white sailors and Marines stationed throughout the city and Latino youths, who were recognizable by the zoot suits they favored. Wearing the oversized suit was a declaration of freedom and self-determination, even rebelliousness. The word zoot probably comes from a reduplication of suit. The creation and naming of the zoot suit have been variously attributed to Harold C. Fox, a Chicago clothier and big-band trumpeter; Louis Lettes, a Memphis tailor; and Nathan (Toddy) Elkus, a Detroit retailer. Zoot suits were initially called drapes.

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