The zoot suit was originally called “drapes” in the Harlem jazz culture of the 1930s & 1940s. During that time, the suit was worn by and popularized by African-Americans. A zoot suit is characterized by a long jacket with wide lapels, large shoulder pads and high-waisted baggy trousers that are tight at the bottom cuff. A zoot suit is often accessorized with a pocket watch that has a long chain that is dangled below the knee. A Fedora hat with a long feather is also often worn to complement the zoot suit.
Because of its baggy construction, a zoot suit is made of more material than is used in conventional suits of the same time period. Because materials were needed at the time for the war effort, the U.S. War Production Board banned the production of zoot suits in 1942 after it considered them to be wasteful. This led to the rebellious “Zoot Suit Riots” which occurred all over the United States.
In the 1950s, Teddy Boys in England wore zoot suits in bright colors with velvet collars Teddy boys didn’t wear bright colors in the 1950s because their style is based on early 1900s Edwardian style. They might have a had a brocade waistcoat to add color but the bright colors in drapes and suits did not come come until the 1970s revival Teds. (Thanks Mimosa for the correction!)
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.” Even Tom & Jerry aspired to be cool during the fashion craze, wearing zoot suits made out of a hammock to impress their girlfriends.
Further Reading, Etc.:
- The Power of the Zoot
- Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race and Riot in Wartime L.A.
- DVD: Zoot Suit