The History and Context of the Zoot Suits Essay

The History and Context of the Zoot Suits Essay

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Over 84 years ago New York was the city of swing. In a realm where culture clashed with politics, race with class and gender with society most teenagers spent an ample amount of their spare time dancing to the music of Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and the likes of others. With the music, blasting in their ears and sweat dripping of their skin the youth was engulfed in a period that would come to stand as a turning point for African-Americans. Despite the rage of the music, there is no question that appearances and the right attire also played a prominent role in the culture of that time. In a society wherein which, Blacks were discriminated and stereotyped against their clothing distinguished and set them apart. The Zoot-Suit, one of the significant symbols of fashion during the era of Swing music was more than embellished get-up. It was a statement, a rebellion, a cultural identification even, but mainly it was a reminder of the social order of society that failed to express and identify certain races1. Although many have argued that racial tensions leading up to the riots emerged from the attitudes of the various races, I stand that fashion choices chosen by the youth of that period played a substantial role in the insurgence. This paper explores the history of the suit, its social and political contexts, its connection to music as well as the implications of fashion choices during the 1930’s and 1940’s.
“Walking slowly, their legs swinging from ballooned cuffs fitting snug about their ankles, their coats long and hip tight, their shoulders to broad to be those of western men the youth walked” . During the World War II period when the youth donned the zoot-suits they had come to symbolize in essence a mass ideol...


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...couldn’t breathe. They danced and wailed for the music to be played again. They danced until they were panting and stumbling of to the sidelines, until they were so exhausted that they were dripping with sweat2.
This was the influence of the zoot-suit. It caused madness and it caused joy. It made people within the African-American community forget just for one moment that they existed in a nation with oppression. It is in everyday practices and ritual such as these that the zoot-suit made history. It merged identity, ethnicity, race, society, political affiliations and music. But most of all it began a chain reaction that would have startling effects on following generations. For individuals such as Malcolm Little, the suit wasn’t a costume or an attire it was a symbol of meaning that gave the Black culture a reason to fight. A reason to rebel. A reason to be free.

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