Zoot suit

For other uses, see Zoot Suit (disambiguation).
A soldier with two men wearing zoot suits in Washington D.C., 1942

A zoot suit (occasionally spelled zuit suit[1]) is a men's 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 became popular among the African-American, Chicano, Filipino American, and Italian American communities during the 1940s.[2][3] In Britain the "Edwardian-look" suits with velvet lapels worn by Teddy Boys is said to be a derivative of the zoot suit.[4]


One of Cab Calloway's zoot suits on display in Baltimore's City Hall, October 2007

Zoot Suits were first associated with African Americans in urban communities such as Harlem, Chicago, and Detroit but were made popular by jazz musicians in the 1940s. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 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;[5] Charles Klein and Vito Bagnato of New York City;[6] Louis Lettes, a Memphis tailor;[7] and Nathan (Toddy) Elkus, a Detroit retailer.[8][9] Anti-Mexican youth riots in Los Angeles during World War II are known as the Zoot Suit Riots. In time, zoot suits were prohibited for the duration of the war,[10] ostensibly because they used too much cloth.[11]

"A Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal)" was a 1942 song written by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Bob O'Brien.[12]


Five men in modernized zoot suits

Zoot suiters often wear a fedora or pork pie hat color-coordinated with the suit, occasionally with a long feather as decoration, 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".[13] Zoot suits usually featured a watch chain dangling from the belt to the knee or below, then back to a side pocket. Zoot suit wearers' dates often wore flared skirts and long coats.[14]

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.[15] When Life published photographs of zoot suiters in 1942, the magazine joked that they were "solid arguments for lowering the Army draft age to include 18 year olds."[14] This extravagance, which many considered unpatriotic in wartime, was a factor in the Zoot Suit Riots. Wearing the oversized suit was a declaration of freedom and self-determination, even rebelliousness.[16][17]

See also



  1. Calderin, Jay (2013). The Fashion Design Reference & Specification Book: Everything Fashion Designers Need to Know Every Day. Rockport Publishers. ISBN 978-1-59253-850-8.
  2. Walker, John. (1992) "Zoot suits". Glossary of Art, Architecture & Design since 1945, 3rd. ed. Retrieved 19 January 2012.
  3. Maddan, Heather (April 29, 2007). "Zooting up / Brighten prom night with flash, dash - and panache". The San Francisco Chronicle.
  4. Mazón, Mauricio (2010). The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292788213. Retrieved 30 January 2016.
  5. McG. Thomas, Robert (August 1, 1996). "Harold Fox, Who Took Credit For the Zoot Suit, Dies at 86". New York Times. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  6. Clipping from The Daily Telegram (Adrian, Michigan), June 28, 1943, p. 8.
  7. Bird, Christiane (2001). The Da Capo Jazz And Blues Lover's Guide To The U.S. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-81034-3.
  8. "Nathan Elkus, 89, Detroit retailer". Daily News Record. January 2, 1992. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  9. Elkus, Philip L. (August 4, 1996). "Zoot Suit Required Cutting and Cajoling". New York Times. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  10. "People & Events: The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943", American Experience; retrieved June 5, 2013.
  11. Use of cloth had already been limited; zoot suits were also seen as unpatriotic. War, Politics & Suits: The Zoot Suit, Duchess Clothier; retrieved June 5, 2013.
  12. Azizi Powell, "Two Examples Of The 1942 Song "Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal)". Pancojams, February 12, 2014.
  13. Lennard, John (2007). Walter Mosley: "Devil in a Blue Dress" (e-book). Humanities-Ebooks. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-84760-042-4. Retrieved 2009-04-22.
  14. 1 2 "Zoot suits". Life. 1942-09-21. p. 44. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  15. Rottman, Gordon L. (2007). FUBAR: Soldier Slang of World War II. Oxford: Botley. p. 117. ISBN 978-1-84603-176-2.
  16. Osgerby, Bill (2008). "Understanding the 'Jackpot Market': Media, Marketing, and the Rise of the American Teenager". In Patrick L. Jamieson & Daniel Romer (eds). The Changing Portrayal of Adolescents in the Media Since 1950. New York: Oxford University Press US. pp. 31–32. ISBN 0-19-534295-X.
  17. Kelley, Robin, Seven Songs for Malcolm X, 1993, film by John Akomfrah.

Further reading

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