You would think that the Zoot Suit is so embedded in the history and culture of Los Angeles that an authentic one would still exist, right? It took LACMA a decade to find such a garment, and they finally acquired a particularly flamboyant example at a New York auction for the record price of $78,000. The circa-1940 baggy wool coat and pants will go on exhibit in April as part of the exhibit Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear 1715-2015.
The museum’s blog describes the style as popular in the 1930s and ’40s with young men of “African American, Latino, and Jewish descent, and those from immigrant communities, who frequented swing clubs and dance halls.” Curators describe the garb as being defined by “overtly broad shoulders with wide, pegged sleeves, narrow hips, and deeply pleated pegged trousers, [which] allowed for ease of movement while creating an image of extreme dandyism.”
The previous owner of the flashy suit purchased it at an estate sale for less than $20. It had been used as a clown costume in New Jersey. I investigated a number of local museums with historic clothing collections, including the Natural History Museum and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, to see if they might have an example hiding in their closets, and yet there were none to be found. Even Western Costume and their eight miles of clothing racks came up short. This cream-colored ensemble is the only garment of its kind to be sold at auction in the United States.
The curators at LACMA speculate that the voluminous fabric of the original suits might have been recycled during the war years—or else they just didn’t survive the extreme jitterbugging of the young men who originally wore them. The museum plans to create a pattern for the outfit and make it available at no charge via their website.
The suit wasn’t just a fashion statement. It was also a marker of difference: Some men became targets of racism and violence as a result of wearing them. I recently sat down with Rudy Estrada, an original Zoot Suiter who was attacked while walking in downtown Los Angeles in 1944. Three sailors rushed teenaged Estrada and a friend as they were leaving a movie theater on Broadway, and the fight ended with Estrada’s prized suit in shreds. Here’s what he told me:
“Chicanos didn’t invent the Zoot Suit style; it was the Filipinos. Ducktail hairdos—Filipinos started that, too. My pants were what you call semi-drape; they weren’t exaggerated. I wore them every day to school and when I went out on Saturdays and Sundays. I didn’t wear a hat or a tie—just the pants and a nice silk shirt. I was about 16 or 17, and I loved them. But these guys in the Navy, they’d get a knife or scissors, start at the bottom, and cut them up—just to be mean. They used the excuse that Chicanos at the beach raped a white girl, but that was horseshit. The country was at war and they had to let off some steam, so they picked Chicanos. During this time, my compadre and I went down to the see a show at 7th and Broadway. We crossed the street, and three sailors came after us. We ran until we realized there were only three of them. The first guy was way ahead of the rest. We did a number on him; the second one, also. The third one got scared and left. But he came back with eight or ten sailors. They chased us, and we ran right in front of a police station. There was policemen outside, kind of giggling, waiting to see if the sailors’d catch us. We would have really been in trouble, but a friend who used to work with me was passing by, so we got in his car and left. In some cases over there in East L.A., the sailors would go inside the house and drag the guys out. One night there was cars from every gang you can think of on Brooklyn Avenue all the way from Record Avenue to Eastern. There was at least a hundred of them. The sailors came by in trucks and started to get out. They didn’t realize that the parked cars were full of guys, and boy, did we do a number on them. We chased them up to Whittier and caught them. They found out they can’t win them all. It was like getting even.”
Zoot Suit, United States, 1940–42, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Ellen A. Michelson; De Luxe Hollyvogue for Lundahl Clothing Co., Necktie, c. 1945, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Stephen J. and Sandra Sotnick; The Guarantee (United States, active 20th century), Shoes (Spectators), 1935–42, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. Carl W. Barrow