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The zoot suit is back

Tuesday, September 07, 1999

By Patricia Sheridan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For cool cats who really know how to spin their kitties, only a zoot suit will do. No longer relegated to mothballs and memories, the suit that defined the hipsters of the late '30s and '40s has been rediscovered by a new generation. With the revival of swing dancing, an umbrella term for dances like the jitterbug and lindy hop, renewed interest in that era's fashion has followed.

Sizzling on both coasts for the past five years, the movement has begun warming up in Middle America. Pittsburgh dance instructor John Hill sees more and more students of swing getting in step with the look.

"People, even if they don't have the whole suit, are going toward the suspender and tie look, with the hat and black and white shoes," he observed.

Hill was one of the snappiest dressers on the dance floor at the American Red Cross swing dance benefit in May, an event that attracted several men in zoot suits. Hill's was courtesy of Sal Ventura -- the local band leader of Dr. Zoot and the Suits.

The suit's design is distinguished by the exaggerated cut of the long, thigh-length coat with broad, padded shoulders and tapered waist. The high-waisted trousers are baggy through the legs, with a cinching cuff at the ankle. The combo creates a silhouette that is hard to ignore. But attracting attention was always the intention.

Some believe the flamboyant style first surfaced in Harlem in the 1920s, mostly worn by jazz musicians who wanted to stand out and make a statement. "It was a kind of underground look," Hill said.

"The people who wore them wanted to be noticed as they were walking down the street. The suit meant you had a little bit of money, because it had to be specially made," added Hill.

According to Eduardo Obregon Pagan of the Department of History at Williams College, Mass., the roots of the suit trace back to Edwardian fashion reflecting the longer, tailored coats and higher-waisted trousers of the late 1800s.

Zoot-suiters reappeared in the late '30s, again as fashion rebels, eschewing the timid for the bold. Wide-brimmed fedoras, two-toned wing tips, extra-long, double watch chains and color were de rigueur for Americans with sartorial rhythm.

"What made the late 1930s incarnation scandalous for many Americans was not what was being worn, but by whom," said Pagan. "No longer were the fitted day coat and Punjab pants being worn by elite white males, but black hipsters whose very lives of sex, drugs, hustling and jazz defied the bourgeois imperatives of society. [This] meant defying the racial norms of society. Both written and unwritten codes of segregation demanded deference from people of color, and hipsters simply refused to defer to white privilege."

By the '40s, the suit was being firmly associated with society's fringe element. Gamblers and gangsters were often depicted wearing them in films of the period. Tensions over politics, race and patriotism exploded in 1943, during what came to be known as the "zoot suit riots." Sailors on leave in Los Angles went overboard attacking Mexican-Americans who wore the suit. The threads were a threat to conventional conformists.

"The zoot suit became a convenient symbol of defiance, because it challenged the conservative fashion norms of mainstream America," said Pagan.

Today, more costume than social commentary, the suit's renewed popularity is evident to retailers. Michael Gardner, president of the San Francisco-based Siegel's Clothing Superstore (the largest men's and boys' store west of the Mississippi), has noticed a continuing increase in sales of the zoot suit and accessories over the past several years.

"Sales of the suits have been getting better and better. It's been great," Gardner said.

The store, which was founded in 1889, has been making zoot suits since the 1930s. "It is a niche business, but we've always made them here. It's something we've been doing for years," Gardner explained.

He suspects the change in musical taste may have played a role in the revival. "People are listening to happier music, singers like Harry Connick Jr., Frank Sinatra and swing."

As the trend gained momentum, Siegel's opened for more business on the Internet in 1996 at "Thrift stores were prospering and people started wearing retro looks, so we started pushing our retro look," he said. Consumers can expect to pay between $209.99 and $329.99 for an authentic Siegel's zoot.

If that's a little high for hepcats on a budget, Siegel's does have a special zootish suit for $175.99 without alterations. (For $10, Siegel's will alter it to fit). "They are basically regular suits with long jackets," Gardner said of the special. Another option is to buy just the zoot pants, which are pleated and baggy through the thigh, tapering dramatically from the knee to the ankle. The pants look great with suspenders for a modified, less pricey approach.

But the accessories are what really put the zoot in the suit. Siegel's has them all, with more than 10,000 hats in the store, plus shoes, belts and those swinging chains. "I really think the accessories make the outfit," said Gardner, who has seen the average age of buyers going up. "We still do a lot of business with teen-agers and college kids, but lately more older people are buying."

One reason Gardner feels baby boomers are getting in on the craze is the discovery of dance and dance lessons as a way to relax and get close to somebody. "I'm not a psychologist, but I think the zoot suit-swing dancing thing has put everybody in a positive mood and is hopefully bringing more romance back into our lives."

Phyllis Estrella, owner of Zoot Suits el Pachuco in Fullerton, Calif., started her company in 1978, after falling in love with the fashion.

"I went to see a play called "Zoot Suit" in Los Angeles, and it was the first time I had ever seen the suit, but I couldn't find one," recalled Estrella. After a month of searching, she decided if nobody was making them, she would. Today, they sell the single-breasted style with all the accoutrements. The complete ensemble can cost $750. The suits start at $500.

El Pachuco's inventory includes hats made to order (in several colors), silver and gold chains, custom belts and red and white, black and white, and solid-colored shoes. Those not dedicated to the look may want to rent. "We do a lot of rentals, especially for theme parties, weddings, reunions and proms," said Estrella.

El Pachuco's will ship rentals for approximately $125. To check out what's available, go to their Web site at or call 714-526-3743.

So where does one go wearing a zoot suit in Pittsburgh? According to John Hill, Chauncy's on Wednesday nights is swinging with local band Dr. Zoot and the Suits. Another spot Hill recommends for zooters is the Pollinator Lounge (above the Beehive in Oakland).

For Hill, dressing the part translates to better dancing. "I think it gives you more confidence," he said. "It puts you in the mood. I feel, when I'm wearing the suit, more eyes are on me and I tend to dance better."

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