Updated: Feb 7, 2018
Happy Black History Month!!
All this month I’ll be dedicating each day to major moments in Black fashion history. From designers that paved the way, models and stylists who broke the color barrier, to the biggest names in fashion today; I’ll hit them all! So sit back while I learn you a thing or two.
Let's talk facts for a second: Black people have always been innovators of culture going back to the post Civil War era.
This includes the fashion industry, and one of the first mainstream contributions was the zoot suit.
The zoot suit first came into popularity in the
1930s in the dance clubs of Harlem’s jazz scene. It’s not entirely sure who first created the look but it was popularized by musicians and big band leaders like Cab Calloway. The exaggerated look consisted of a coat with wide shoulders, large lapels, high waist pants in draped fabric that tapered at the ankle and was completed with a wide-brimmed hat and wingtip or solid shoes.
By the 1940s the zoot suit had made its way out of the urban jazz scene into the closets of working-class men of color all over the nation. They represented a level of class and cool sophistication that only those in the know could possess. Even civil rights activist Malcolm X wore zoot suits in his teenage years. But the trend would be cut short due to the impending threat of WWII.
Zoot suits with their large amounts of excess fabric directly conflicted with the fabric ration laws put in place during the war. Despite this, many men refused to stop wearing their zoot suits, leading to an increasing string of violent altercations with white servicemen who considered the suit “unpatriotic”. The most noted of these attacks occurred in Los Angeles in June 1943, which involved attacks on Latino, Filipino and black men who wore the suits. These would come to be known as the “Zoot Suit Riots”.
Though they disappeared in the 1950s, zoot suits continue to leave an impact on fashion
and popular culture. In the 1940s, the popular cartoon Tom and Jerry featured zoot suits in the cartoon “Zoot Suit Cat”. The episode featured the cat and mouse creating their own zoot suits and competing over the affections of a girl. The Pachuco style of suit was created by Mexican Americans in the 1970s and draws inspiration from the classic zoot suit from its long jacket with big shoulders to the high waist baggy pants. They have also become a popular Halloween costume.