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AN APPRECIATION

A Suitable Enterprise for the Counterculture

August 05, 1996|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The zoot suit has earned its reputation as an outlaw. What other fashion item can say a riot was named for it and a government agency declared it illegal?

The fact that tailors from Miami to Chicago have claimed credit for creating it only demonstrates its power. Wherever there is affluence to be affected, or injustice to be jeered, there is a place for the zoot suit.

Harold C. Fox--who died last week at 86--was one of at least three clothiers who claimed to have created and named it.

Cautious obituary writers hedged their bets by noting that the Fox version gained fame among big-band musicians of the 1940s.

In the Fox Brothers shop in Chicago, Harold cut double breasted jackets with oversize shoulders and wide lapels to wrap over billowing, high waisted pants that ended in stiletto points, cuffed. A long watch chain was an essential detail.

Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton were Fox's customers. But in his lifetime even he gave credit where it was due--to the kids he saw wearing the look in the working-class city streets. Jazz cities, especially Chicago and New York, had a special draw for the fashion look. In Los Angeles as well, younger African American and Latino men reveled in the bold, exaggerated style.

Some fashion histories note that Al Capp, the cartoonist, helped promote the look when hillbilly he-man L'il Abner started wearing a zoot suit in the 1930s. The excessive fabric helped Abner create the illusion of wealth.

Others note that Harlem night clubs--Sammy's Follies and the Savoy Ballroom, among them--were a showplace for the zoot suit in the '30s and '40s. Malcolm X bought his first one in 1940. At about that time, Dizzy Gillespie bought three at a shop called Parisian Tailors in Pennsylvania. Both men thought the purchase was important enough to write about it in their journals or memoirs.

The meaning of the purchase remains clear.

"The zoot suit was a young, blue-collar statement," says Dale Carolyn Gluckman, associate curator of costumes and textiles for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "It was the first fashion trend of the 20th century that started at the bottom of the social ladder and moved up. It was countercultural, with a political message."

By World War II, some authority figures had condemned zoot suits as the garb of gangsters and hoodlums. A shortage of wool gave the War Production Board an excuse to ban the style, a glutton for fabric. In 1942, zoot suits along with vests and any version of a cuff, were considered excessive and unpatriotic. Some private tailors continued to make the suits on order.

The following year in Los Angeles, 11 U.S. sailors said they were provoked by young Mexican Americans they described as zoot-suiters. For two weeks after that, several thousand servicemen and civilians wandered the streets, beating up young Latinos, stripping them of their exaggerated jackets and baggy pants.

In 1978, Luis Valdez remembered the incident in his play named after the suit that stood in his mind as an emblem of racial injustice under a fashion banner of defiance.

With such a rowdy and romantic past, is it any wonder that every major name in American fashion--from Bill Blass to Ralph Lauren--has picked up on the look over time?

"A lot of designers are showing it again this fall," says Denise Scher, western regional fashion director for Neiman Marcus. She mentions Gucci's tailored shirts with collars spread over wide jacket lapels. For men, chunky hip-chains are in style for the moment. They seem to be chipped from the zoot suit tradition as well.

"I don't think the look is as exaggerated as it once was. The big shoulders are gone," Scher says.

But this is fashion. They'll be back.

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