Putting On a Zoot Suit: A Case of Race and Class in the First Truly American Suit

by Clarissa Esguerra


The zoot suit was an icon of its time, born from the bespoke draped silhouettes of London’s Savile Row in the mid-1930s then adopted and exaggerated by young jazz-obsessed men and women across America. Amid a period of social and political turbulence just before World War II, the style was not only a means of dandyism, but also a badge of cultural identity for many African American and first-generation immigrant youths. Its exaggerated shape and distinctive details are familiar to many by way of classic images of performers Cab Calloway, Tin Tan and other jazz greats, as well as from the numerous tributes that have since been made to the zoot suit and its original wearers, such as Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit from 1978 and popular songs from L. Wolfe Gilbert and Bob O’Brien’s 1942, ‘Zoot suit for my Sunday Gal,’ to Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ 1997 big band revival hit, ‘Zoot Suit Riot.’

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