Fashion in Song – Mr. Zoot Suit (1999)

This 1940s style song was written and performed by the Flying Neutrinos for the 1999 film Blast From the Past:

He’s got great big feet, he’s jumping to the beat
He’s been dancing in the street
He’s dressed so fine, got lots of loot
We like to call him Mr Zoot Suit

He drives a great big car, smokes a big cigar
Looks like a king and he acts like a star
When we see him drive by he goes, “Toot, toot”
We all shout, “Hey, Mr Zoot Suit”

He’s got a purple suspenders and a yellow tie
(Say what?)
Come on boys, I tell you no lie
He’s got all those hats, funky spats
He is the hippest cat

No, no, he can’t be beat
Wherever he goes he turns up the heat
So when you see him drive by with that big cheroot
Don’t forget to shout, “Hey, Mr Zoot Suit”

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.