The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style
"Thorough, well-researched, and illuminating."—PopMatters
"Kathy Peiss brilliantly unravels the many meanings of the zoot suit while sustaining the aesthetic pleasure of its creation in the complex cultural fabric of American life. Zoot Suit is a cultural history laced with the eye of ethnography, showing how an original African American sartorial style carried substantial symbolic power into the lives of Mexican American pachucos suaves, Jewish tailor trumpeters, and all who would wear 'the Drape' as a statement of hipness."—Nick Spitzer, producer and host of American Routes
"Zoot Suit is a sophisticated, independent minded, and valuable book; there should be more work like it in the field. Peiss's principled attention to evidence, her nuanced argument, and her willingness to question conventional assumptions about the meaning of popular forms all go a long way toward re-grounding American Studies in the lived world."—Carlo Rotella, author of Good With Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt
ZOOT SUIT (n.): the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit.
—Cab Calloway, The Hepster's Dictionary, 1944
Before the fashion statements of hippies, punks, or hip-hop, there was the zoot suit, a striking urban look of the World War II era that captivated the imagination. Created by poor African American men and obscure tailors, the "drape shape" was embraced by Mexican American pachucos, working-class youth, entertainers, and swing dancers, yet condemned by the U.S. government as wasteful and unpatriotic in a time of war. The fashion became notorious when it appeared to trigger violence and disorder in Los Angeles in 1943—events forever known as the "zoot suit riot." In its wake, social scientists, psychiatrists, journalists, and politicians all tried to explain the riddle of the zoot suit, transforming it into a multifaceted symbol: to some, a sign of social deviance and psychological disturbance, to others, a gesture of resistance against racial prejudice and discrimination. As controversy swirled at home, young men in other places—French zazous, South African tsotsi, Trinidadian saga boys, and Russian stiliagi—made the American zoot suit their own.
In Zoot Suit, historian Kathy Peiss explores this extreme fashion and its mysterious career during World War II and after, as it spread from Harlem across the United States and around the world. She traces the unfolding history of this style and its importance to the youth who adopted it as their uniform, and at the same time considers the way public figures, experts, political activists, and historians have interpreted it. This outré style was a turning point in the way we understand the meaning of clothing as an expression of social conditions and power relations. Zoot Suit offers a new perspective on youth culture and the politics of style, tracing the seam between fashion and social action.
Kathy Peiss is Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press, and Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York.