There can be no certainty about when, where, or who originated the zoot-suit.

The zoot-suit “tuxedo” never has been attributed to any single group or ethnicity.

Historically, “everybody got their own claim to it”. The Filipinos in the west coast had what was termed by some as the Hawaiian look – a radical style with a “long” coat, pancake hats (recognizable by their flattened tops), and thick-soled shoes. The Blacks of Harlem had the “killer-diller-coat”, which was a “drape” shaped coat with padded shoulders, and a one tone color scheme. Even the Italians had their own version, a bit more in line with the Italian Mobster suit of the 20’s, but with bufont (elvis) type hairstyle and “trench” coats.

The word ZOOT comes from a Jazz term used when referring to something extravagant, something with flash, and that is exactly what the zoot-suit developed into by the 30’s, “cool & smooth”, yet definitely projecting a flashy appearance. By 1943, the year of the infamous zoot-suit riots, it had become the uniform of a whole generation of youth through out America. It distinguished itself as a form of youthful attire that was tied in with rebelliousness. The zoot-suit began to be sung about, swung about, and memorialized on stage & screen, becoming immortalized in time.

Undoubtedly, the zoot-suit had its birth as “fashion”, but where did it originate in its infancy is the subject of many discussions on the topic. There is several commonly referred to stories that speak on the origin of the zoot-suit. One taken from the New York Times front-page article written during the zoot-suit riots of 1943, makes the claim that a certain Clyde Duncan, a black bus worker from Gainesville had purchased the first tailor-made zoot-suit after having seen and been inspired by Rhett Butler in the movie “Gone With The Wind”. Another story originates the zoot-suit in Britain after the First World War when people elated that the Great War and “rationing” was over, indulged themselves with outlandish styles of fashion. From the export of British fashion through out the farthest reaches of the British Empire, the style is said to have reached Hong Kong and then onto Manila, right at the time when Filipinos were migrating in large numbers to Hawaii and California. The Filipinos brought with them the style and after intermingling with the Mexican Gangsters and partaking with them, the zoot-suit style in Los Angeles took a path of which now is the look with which we are now most familiar with. Yet another story, and one that is taken to be “the real”, argues that the zoot-suit grew out from the Swing-Jazz culture. In particular from places such as “Harlem’s Night-Life” purporting to the exhibitionist style of the on-stage band performers of the times and their extravagant costumes.

Another story that scholars have given credibility to, is of the Pachuco zoot-suit originating from the military uniforms of the ZOUAVES (French Foreign Legion), ex-soldiers who remained in Northern Mexico after their abandonment by Napoleon, who chose to remain in Mexico instead of returning to France. Later, many of them also migrated north to the borderlands amongst the waves of others. These ZOUAVES had a very distinctive baggy colorful uniform, and the Legionnaires had a legendary reputation of being tough daredevil warriors. The wandering bands of performing Gypsies whom also displayed an extreme baggy and colorful art of dressing, along with adorning their bodies with tattoos and earrings, were copied and later became the trademarks of the Pachuco style of extreme colorful bagginess in their attire, with accessorized adornments, incorporated along with the reputation for toughness.

Many historians point out to the unique and autonomous culture that Mexican-Americans created for themselves, which allowed them to survive and resist racial oppression as the context in which the “glamorous” zoot-suit was born. The assertion is made that the Pachucos laid claim to their own bodies through the clothes they chose, and altered them to fit their attitude. The hairstyles, the dances, the stroll, and the language, they devised for themselves, and in doing such, they were displaying and asserting their right to control public spaces usually dominated by whites.

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz, wrote a book “The Labyrinth of Solitude” in which he sheds light on the Pachuco style and establishes a framework under which the Zoot-Suit can be understood within the context of the “pachuquismo” attitude in the borderlands. From the changes in labour and social order that the waves of immigrants encountered when coming in contact with the ambivalent experience between two cultures, the birth of a unique style of attire was born, much in-line with “pachuquismo” identity. It is at the borderland town of El Paso (aka: El Chuco), where the theory of the origin and spread of the zoot-suit lies in. And it is through the “El Paso-Los Angeles trail”, - the path that goes hand in hand with the migration and dispersal of this culture along the major Mexican cities of the Southwestern United States (referred amongst Chicanos as AZTLAN), - where the zoot-suit culture gained popular National recognition. It is at this conjuncture that the Pachuco Zoot-Suiters interactions and relationships with other ethnic groups is crucial, for it was in an era when American Swing-Jazz music, and motorcars were at the center of a subculture of wild living, an era in which breaking the rules of social etiquette was hip, an era full of “isms”, from feminism to gangsterism. This was the era when Prohibition (18th Amendment) escalated smuggling, and gangs grew in numbers and became more organized – thus the subculture grew right-along-side prohibition. Drugs at this time, mainly marijuana, heroin, and cocaine, came into wide use, and Stylin’ became the child of liberalism in a society in which everyone wished for an outlet from the mediocrity of their limited world surrounding them. When Prohibition ended, the subculture of jazz, drugs & stylin’ did not go away, and neither did the gangsters. It was during this era that the Pachucos in the urban areas from El Paso to Los Angeles became known for their style of dress, idioms of speech, and their counterculture activities.

The Pachuco phenomenon passed beyond the “fashion fad”, for it produced a cultural entity of nonconformity symbolism, displayed as “in-your-face” ethnic pride rebellion. Pachucos walked around making political statements through fashion and speech. They developed a unique language called Calo, a unique argot that employed words and phrases absorbed from the language of the Gypsies, creatively applied to Spanish terminology, and imaginatively adapted transformed English loan words. They also developed a mannerism in which hand and face gestures combined with body movements in a display of “cool communication”. They transformed a “relaxed night-out tuxedo” into a “flamboyant outfit” tailor-made from fine-cloth materials. The outfit (tacuche) included Baggy trousers (tramos) held high on the waist and cuffed snugly at the ankles, supported by either suspenders or a thin belt around a set of 3 or 5 waits ear loops. A sport coat (carlango) that fitted wide at the shoulders and hung down to the thighs. Shoes (calcos) pointed at the toes, with metal tips and heels & two-toned color black with a white middle. A long decorative gold watch chain displayed conspicuously from the trouser belt ear loops drooping down below the knees then back up to the trouser pocket. A fedora type feathered hat (tando), with long groomed slicked back hair with ducktails and kept down with pomade. A silky dark or bright colored shirt (lisa) complimented by a short but wide tie. When Pachucos borrowed from white or black forms, be they clothing or music, they virtually always altered them to suit their cultural taste – a practice that continues to this present day with the Chicanos. Every time something was borrowed from a style of others, the Pachucos quickly deformed and altered it, and they did so in an exaggerated or mocking way.

Although the zoot-suit was worn by young people of various ethnic groups, it was only after the Pachucos stylized and accessorized it with everything from attitude and body movement to lingo – taking it from a “fashion-fad night-out tuxedo” to the baggy flamboyant outfit – that became the beacon of youthful rebelliousness. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz called the zoot-suit, “a symbol of love and joy – of horror and loathing, an embodiment of liberty, disorder, and the forbidden”.

In the 1940’s, the “Negro Quarterly” and “Crisis”, both part of the independent press of America, wrote editorials in which they pointed to the zoot-suit being the “product” of a particular social context. They emphasized the importance of Mexican-American youths in the emergence of the zoot-suit style, in whose tentative ways, they tried to relate their appearance on the “streets” to the concept of “pachuquismo” – this encompassed a social-cultural-fabric that arrived from Mexico in the waves of immigrants urban America. It is important to distinguish between the zoot-suit culture of African & Mexican-Americans, while both are expressions of countercultures and reflect alienation of young men in America; they remain different in their appropriations of history and of “their own versions”. The depression brought on widespread unemployment and poverty, causing many young people to feel like “dead ends”. This phenomenon of the dead ends was taken to the stage and screen where it proved an enormously popular image in which many identified with. By the 1940’s American fashion was still gangster oriented, and the gangs gravitated largely around minority ethnic groups. The zoot-suit reigned with Mexican-American gangs, but in many cities, especially those on the jazz scene, many others also wore the zoot-suits. Los Angeles went on to become a mecca for jazz artist, and Blacks, Mexicans, and Filipinos thrilled to the jazz culture, although the Pachucos also had a separate taste in music as well, this being el Mambo, la Rumba, el Danzon, Guaracha and los Botecitos. Music and dance style facets were continuously in flux, and projected varying degrees of influence from Latin to Black on the Pachuco zoot-suiters.

While Pachuco zoot-suit”ism” spread across the Southwestern U.S. it also spread south into Mexico, and to other unexpected areas such as urban areas of the Midwest. The culture surely gained “International” recognition through its propagation in “Mexican Cinema” after famous comedians and actors in the caliber of “Tin Tan and Resortes” from El Paso/Juarez & Mexico/Tepito’s Barrio Bravo respectably, unabashedly took on and propagated the Pachuco style to the world. As some dissertations on similar topics allude, pachuquismo, jazz musicians, ethnic migrations, and the zoot-suit riots are some of the factors catalyzing the spread of the zoot-suit as a dress style.



Anonymous said...

I relly enjoyed reading about the origins of the Zoot Suit. Somehow I had the misconception that "Zoot" was a manufacturer of suits and not something of ethnic origins. I now see that that is not the case. I am very thankful there are authors like you that take the time to post things like this on the web for all of us to learn from. Thank you from a very satisfied reader.

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