Stash of cash paid for Zoot suit

At the Karen Augusta auction on November 2, a bidding war for a rare cream wool zoot suit ended with a final price of $65,000!

Zoot suit sold at Karen Augusta Auctions, November 2 for $65,000

When I was writing Forties Fashion, I found a few modified and simple versions of zoot suits but nothing that illustrated the extreme of the style like the one sold November 2. The Henry Ford Museum reportedly has one made by Harold Fox, the self-proclaimed inventor of the zoot suit. The son of a wool wholesaler, Fox had grown up in Chicago and went to New York as a musician in the mid 1930s where he ended up making suits for his musician friends.

The zoot suit fashion evolved in the late 1930s, primarily in New York, amongst young urban Black and Hispanic men who were fascinated by jazz music. The style was identifiable by its full-legged tapered trousers and oversized jacket with padded shoulders, all worn with a confidant swagger. The Zoot style was at its height of popularity in the early 1940s, before the U.S. entered the war. It was even the subject of a 1942 song “A Zoot suit”, with the refrain ‘I want a Zoot suit with a reat pleat, with a drape shape and a stuff cuff.’

View of pants, image courtesy of Karen Augusta Auctions

A variation of zoot suit style was worn by Parisian youths who called themselves Zazous, likewise, the German ‘Swing Kids’ were the counterpart of American Hepcats and French Zazous. The National Socialists denounced American Jazz as degenerate but to Swing Kids, National Socialism was a repressive regime to be ignored or defied through music, dance, and dress.

In America, attitudes changed towards Zoot suits after the States entered the war and the War Production Board initiated clothing restrictions in March 1942 that limited the amount of wool in men’s suits. The zoot suit became technically illegal under wartime regulations and its continued use was considered unpatriotic. A sensational murder trial in 1942 involving rival Mexican-American (Pachuco) gangs associated the Zoot suit-wearers with anti-social behaviour and delinquency.

Cab Calloway in similarly styled zoot suit, c. 1943

In the first week of June 1943, prejudices between servicemen and Pachuco youths escalated into a weeklong street fight in Los Angeles. The brawl became known as the Zoot Suit Riots. Tensions had subsided by late July 1943 just when the film Stormy Weather was released which featured Cab Calloway in an extreme Zoot suit style in the finale of the film.

With the conclusion of war, the Zoot suit lost its association with unpatriotic delinquency and as de-regulated men’s suits in 1946 were made with fuller pants and longer, wider jackets the excesses of the Zoot suit were de-emphasized. For more info about zoot suits, Zazous, and Swing kid fashions – see my book Forties Fashion.

5 thoughts on “Stash of cash paid for Zoot suit

  1. The Zoot suit was the dress of my era, being a white, early-teen in Toronto Canada along with many Italian-Canadian friends. I never could afford the jacket but had several pairs of pants (strides) custom made at $100 a pair by the only tailor
    we’d trust (Abe Winestock) in the basement of his house. Looking back I have no idea how I saved for pants @ $100 per. Maybe my paper-route.
    Anyhow, the pants had a 14 inch cuff , 42 inch knee, and a three button extension to heighten the waist.
    Our topcoats were always black, “double-breasted one button role”. Everyone called the coat a “Benny”. I thought I was the hottest 14 year old in my pointy shoes, and paddy-green strides. We all hung-out at a greasy spoon called “the Beanery at Dovercourt and College. Cant believe those memories are so vivid and I cant even remember if I had breakfast yesterday. It’s been a slice.

    • Thanks for the memories! It’s good to know that the style was around in Toronto too, but at $100 for a pair of pants you didn’t have much money left over for anything else. I guess the possibility of you still having those strides around anymore is asking too much? If you do have them, I can suggest a museum that would kill for them!

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