A zoot suit is a flamboyant style of clothing that became popular during the 1930s and 40s. At that time, it was associated with certain minority groups in the United States, such as Chicanos and African-Americans. This style of suit was also associated in popular culture with youth gangs and jazz music. Today, most people think of jazz and swing culture when they think of zoot suits.
The zoot suit is an oversized suit, with wide-legged pants gathered at the ankles, or tramas, and a long jacket with huge shoulder pads, called a carlango. The excess amounts of fabric necessary to make it made the style a sign of ostentation. This garment is typically worn for formal occasions and often accessorized with a long watch chain on the pants, pointed shoes, and a large felt hat with a feather.
This style of suit first arose in the African American jazz culture in Harlem, New York, and was soon adopted by minority communities in other American cities, notably Los Angeles. The name may derive from a Mexican-American slang pronunciation of "suit." Female versions of the suit also existed, though they are rarely seen today, some with knee-length skirts instead of tramas.
Wearing zoot suits became openly defiant after the style was formally banned in 1942 by the federal War Production Board, which deemed the suits wasteful of fabric. In 1943, the so-called Zoot Suit Riots erupted in Los Angeles, where the style was very popular among Mexican-American youths. Soldiers and sailors on leave began beating up anyone found in a this type of suit in East Los Angeles, the heart of the Latino community, though African-Americans and Filipino Americans were also among the victims. The military men also destroyed as many of the suits as they could, ripping them off the wearers and burning the clothes in the streets.
Though the zoot suiters suffered the most violence in the riots, they also incurred hundreds of arrests. Only nine sailors were arrested, all but one of which were released with no penalty. The United States military responded by ruling Los Angeles off-limits to military personnel.
In a sense, the Zoot Suit Riots cemented the popularity of the fashion as a symbol of cultural pride and a stand against racism. The first Chicano play on Broadway was Luiz Valdez' musical, Zoot Suit (1979), made into a film in 1981.