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The Zoot Suit: Fashion Statement in More Ways Than One Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 19 May 2017

The Zoot Suit: Fashion Statement in More Ways Than One

Fashion as a reflection of current and social issues is not a new concept. In Old England, fashions were dictated by the values of the monarch on the throne. Sexually repressed Victorian England saw fashions that centered round voluminous, layered skirts as the mode set by Charles Worth and stiff formal wear for the men. The hippie era of the 60’s brought colorful flower emblems on fringe vests and scarves worn by the anti-war protestors.

If there however, was one fashion trend that stood out the loudest and became truly symbolic in American cultural history, that was the Zoot suit of the 1930’s and 40’s. The Los Angeles Daily News best sums up the zoot suit: “There is no mistaking a zoot suit once you see it, there being nothing subtle in the style,” ” (Daniels)

Regarded as the “rebellious garment” of the era, the zoot suits were made up of high- waisted, wide pegged trousers, and a long coat with wide lapels and exaggerated padded shoulders. Loud as they may be, they also stood out as symbols of the fight for ethnic identity. (Craik 39) There are many theories as to the origins of the zoot suit. Some have said that the great band leader, Cab Calloway was the one who popularized the suit on his onstage performances and during his film “Stormy Weather. ” Others have pointed out that Clark Gable also wore the same kind of suit on “Gone with the Wind. ” (White, and White 249)

One theory cites Duke Ellington’s musical “Jump for Joy”(1942) that featured players wearing zoot suits and had songs that centered on racial pride and criticized white racism. It has been suggested that the zoot suit wearers, specifically the Mexican-Americans and Filipino-Americans, simply identified with Ellington’s anti-racism and thus donned the same suits used in his production. One of the more common beliefs however, is that the Zoot Suit’s origins finds itself in African-American history.

In the book “Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit” (1998) by Shawn White and Graham White, they posited that the practice of slavery in earlier times gave birth to a culture in the African-American community that sought to create individual self-expression and determination through movement and clothing. It was oppressive times in those days when the whites aggressively imposed their will on Negro slaves.

The slaves were required to appear submissive, “non-threatening” and plain as “befitting their station. ” (Tyler 630) The blacks however, rebelled and sought to assert their own humanity and individuality in their own indirect way against the white supremacists using distinctive tome of movement, grooming and physical carriage. Sunday mornings and church would see the blacks dressed up in the appearance of free people complete with the right to adorn themselves in the way they chose.

This threatened and caused tension with the white community who viewed such actions and extravagant clothes by the slaves as arrogant, pretentious and conduct unbecoming of slaves. The white people believed that the blacks especially the slaves were not entitled to such arrogant and pretentious display of identity. Much as the whites, however, did their best to stamp out the growing determination of the blacks to express their selves and gain the dignity of having identity.

Daring the threat of punishment from the slave owners, blacks both free and slave, would determinedly slip away from their huts and visit with loved ones, performed their own dances, congregated for Church, and fought for their right to groom and have time to themselves. New Orleans was one of the cities where the African culture made its presence so vividly particularly in the 1920’s. (Tyler 630) Negro jazz performers from Memphis and Atlanta would gather together with the rest of black community in New Orleans to dance, socialize, perform, and strut around during the annual Mardi Gras.

Special grooming and hair styles were devised by Madame C. J. Walker (White, and White 169) that gave black people “looks” that can best be described as upscale or middle-class. “Black Beauty” was celebrated in various beauty contests and pretty baby contests. The blacks also became known for their particular “walk” where every window shopping experience was turned into a virtual fashion show where the blacks showed off their bodies and clothes.

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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 19 May 2017

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