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A Cultural History of the Zoot Suit

In the 1944 Tom & Jerry short "The Zoot Cat"—only the thirteenth cartoon ever made starring that famous duo—Tom"s would-be girlfriend lays it on him straight: "Boy, are you corny! You act like a square at the fair, a goon from Saskatoon. You come on like a broken arm. You"re a sad apple, a long hair, a cornhusker. In other words, you don"t send me!" The sad cat goes out and buys himself some new duds from Smiling Sam, the Zoot Suit Man, prompting his wide-eyed gal pal to do a one-eighty.

 "You"re really a sharp character! A mellow little fellow. Now you collar my jive!"

Around the same time on the American scene—but, culturally speaking, light-years away—a young Malcom X, then known as "Detroit Red," also sang the praises of the Zoot Suit, a "killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet-pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic"s cell." (Apparently, people in the 1940"s liked to rhyme more than they do today.) In his widely read autobiography, Malcolm X describes his first Zoot Suit almost in religious terms: "Sky-blue pants thirty inches in the knee and angle narrowed down to twelve inches at the bottom, and a long coat that pinched my waist and flared out below my knees...hat angled, knees drawn close together, feet wide apart, both index fingers jabbed toward the floor." (We won"t even mention Cesar Chavez, the famous Mexican-American labor activist who wore Zoot Suits as a teen.)

What was it about Zoot Suits that united such disparate cultural icons as Malcom X, Cesar Chavez, and Tom & Jerry? The origins of the Zoot Suit, characterized by its wide lapels, padded shoulders, and baggy pants tapering down to narrow cuffs--and usually accessorized with a feathered hat and a dangling pocket watch—are shrouded in mystery, but the style seems to have coalesced in Harlem nightclubs in the mid-1930"s, and then worked its way out into the wider urban culture.

Essentially, Zoot Suits were the pre-war equivalent of the sagging, low-hipped pants sported by some African-American youths in the 1990"s, or the huge Afro

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