While I was writing about fashion the second world war in my blog last week, I came across a topic I would like to write little more about: the zoot suit. Many know of the zoot suit through Cab Calloway, who was known for it, and had many varieties. Personally I love the one he was wearing in ‘Stormy Weather’ , the wonderful film with Lena Horn, Bill Robinson (mr Bojangles), the Cotton Club orchestra, Fats Waller, and of course Cab Calloway. A must see if you haven’t already.
What is a zoot suit, and how did this fashion take of?
In the thirties high waisted pants, so called slacks, were in fashion. The silhouette was masculine, broad shouldered and narrow waisted. The ‘English drape’ grew popular. London tailor Scholte designed a suit with jackets with wide shoulders and chest, wide armholes and narrow waist, worn with high waisted tapered pants. This look conquered America in the midst of the Great Depression. Hollywood embraced this drape cut. Men Like Gary Grant and Clark Gable wore draped suits. By 1940 the drape style became known as the ‘American cut’. As the Great depression deepened, men started mixing jackets and pants. Menswear changed. Sportswear was common, and especially in World War II men changed their factory overalls for simple T-shirts and slacks instead of suits. The men’s garment industry started manufacturing for young men. Style that adults would never wear. Film and dance also influenced fashion. The Sears catalogue of 1941 offered new wide legged pants called ‘swing pants’ and colors ranging from brown to teal blue and medium green.
The drape suit started to evolve. In Harlem there were tailors advertising with ‘extreme English drapes’. Other clothing stores advertised with ’New long drapes’ and adds for pegged pants or ’Jitterbug pants’ started to appear. Photographs of the Savoy ballroom in Harlem show these extreme drape style. In Chicago tailor and trumpeter Harold Fox gained clients with musicians and performers. In his store many jazz musicians gathered because of his costumes and the music was good too. According to Fox the zoot suit was not his invention: It came ‘out of the ghetto’. Young men walked in at tailors and asked for them to make wider and longer jackets, and pegged pants.
Cab Calloway spread his ‘Jive talk’ and zoot style to musicians in the black community, and also with his white patrons. Soon zoot suits were even worn at the ‘White only’ venues. The name ‘zoot’ could well be deriving from his “Hipsters Dictionary of Jivetalk’ meaning ‘the ultimate’ or ‘exaggerated’.
By the early 1940’s the zoot suits became popular with the Mexican youth. In 1943 there were the infamous ‘zoot suit riots’. In Los Angeles, more and more Mexicans took refuge. Together with the war that took away many white men, the jazz scene that openly defied segregation, this caused a lot of racial tension. In 1942 after ‘the sleepy lagoon murder trial’ involving mostly Mexican American men, zoot suited or not, the suit was associated with gangsters and rebels.
These riots could well have been called ‘sailor riots’. As they were started by sailors and soldiers who spotted a group of Mexican American women across the street. As they were approaching them, they found a group of zoot suiters in between them. Sailor Coleman claimed he thought he was being attacked, and grabbed the arm of a zoot suited man. Coleman was hit on the head, and from that incident on sailors organised strikes on zoot suiters. The violence continued multiple nights and affected everybody even remotely associated with zoot suits, Mexican youth and jazz. The Los Angeles city counsel approved of criminalising wearing zoot suits with reat pleats. The worst violence was at June the 7th 1943. A Los Angeles paper printed a guide of how to ‘de-zoot’ a zoot suit: “Grab a looter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up and burn them.” That night 500 civilians, sailors, marines and soldiers gathered downtown to go after the Mexicans and African Americas.
That year a committee ordered by the governor determined racism to be a central cause of the riots. The Mayor however concluded that juvenile delinquents were the cause, and racial prejudice had nothing to do with it.
So… It was ‘just’ a youth style from the streets. And maybe one of the first to occur in the history of fashion. Others would follow, and certainly nowadays we are used to the idea that street styles first appear in Harlem. Like the jeans that were put on backward, the very low worn pants, cap styles, the zoot suit was merely a street style loved, worn and made famous by dancers and musicians. The zoot suit riots had nothing to do with the suits and were based on racism rather than clothing style.
Feel free to wear one, you should only be associated with dancers and musicians. In my mind that is not bad at all!
Zoot suit, The enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style, Kathy Peiss
American Experience http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/
Cab Calloway, Hepsters Dictionary
For this once, I had to put in two video's.
-dress may only have 2 pockets
-No metal or leather buttons
-No boys under 13 could wear long trousers
-All embroidery and lace were banned
-Jackets and coats could hove only 3 pockets
-No double breasted Jackets and coats
-Trousers could not be cuffed
-No shirring, rushing, boning or fancy stitching was allowed
a 1940's 'Utility dress'
So considering that all, you might want to respect the 1940's women for keeping a sense of style and grace under these conditions. And it made the way for later generations to start wearing more practical clothing.
Everything was influenced by the war. Not in the least music was. To keep up moral for the men at the front.
This song by Gene Krupa and Anita O'Day is a fine example.
I have been making a small study out of the 1930's and 1940's men's slacks. I wanted to make them, and so I needed to spend time in books, on internet and inside my head to figure out just the right design. What did they wear?
Men's fashion went through a bit of a transformation after the first world war. Life changed, and so fashion changed. The men's pants grew in width. And as always, young people lead the way. The widest pants were the Oxford Bags, worn by Oxford students when they wanted to hide their knickers, since they were forbidden from 1925 onwards. They were mostly worn by the undergraduates.
Another novelty was the introduction of the zipper in the trouser fly. The prince of Wales was the first to wear it, and it soon became very popular.
Overall, the male figure was supposed to be masculine and sportive: narrow waisted and broad shouldered. The pants were high waisted, 2 or 3 inches above the navel, and tapered. The jackets grew wider at the top, shoulders were padded and the lapels of suit jackets were wide across the chest. This was called the English drape suit, or lounge style. This became very popular in the United States, as this add shows:
A small detail I discovered while making the pants, concerns the pleats in the front. Modern pleated trousers have the pleat folded to the outside. Some vintage patterns I own clearly indicate the pleats should fold inwards. And yes, looking at drawings and pictures, both were used. I chose to fold them inwards to create a more convex shape.
And this is what they look like. My model was clearly in a hurry, but oké, a musician isn't necessarily a gentleman.
The Oxford Bag had a revival in the eighties, so obviously, this song comes to mind:
The past week was a bit of a struggle. I wanted to work with one of the beautiful fabrics I recently purchased.
I fell in love with this wonderful sheer silk georgette. The print is one typical for the 1930's and I thought that would be a good accomplishment for my shop. What vintage lover wouldn't fall in love with this?
I wanted to make a simple 1930's blouse and I knew this fabric would bring some problems. What makes it so nice to look at, makes it a nightmare to work with. It is sheer, and brittle, so no room for mistakes. So I made a muslin first. I used a polyester chiffon to see if what I wanted to make, is even possible in this kind of fabric. It was difficult, but as I was working along I had a few ideas. One of them came overnight as a EUREKA!! It was to line the facing with black organza to give a little stiffness. And that did the trick. it gave me enough to work with to create a collar, and to give structure for the buttonholes and buttons. Another issue I encountered was the look of it. I had to make some changes to make it look more modern. If you take a vintage pattern, you could simply make that pattern as it was intended 80 years ago. the funny thing is if you do that, it looks 80 years old to. Like something your grandmother would wear. And vintage is all lovely, but we do not want to look as grannies do we? Therefore I had to make some slight alterations. Give it some more waist, and lower the neckline. I tweaked it a bit to fit our vintage love with a modern sense.
So.... drum roll... I am proud to present, 1930's blouse 'Marguarite'
This whole process made me think, and doubt. Was this ever good enough?? And can I ever make it worthwhile?? On that track, I have to be very careful not to go overboard in my critical concoctions! There is a danger I start to doubt everything I am doing. That feeling grew yesterday when I was scrolling on internet to look at retro clothing. Of course there is a lot on offer, plenty to choose from. So where do I fit in? And, more important, where do I make a difference? I think I should keep going, and search for the uniqueness in my designs. And these very exclusive and expensive fabrics could well be one of the answers. Make something these other shops do not sell, make a unique product and be good at it! When in doubt, go ahead and do it!
This morning, as I finished the last seam on my blouse, I had to play this... Loudly... And sing along too!
Sunny van Zijst
I am maker of vintage inspired couture. I was trained as a designer for theater costumes. Now I enjoy making vintage inspired clothing for men and women.