The Zoot Suit (Pictured on left.) was the "Hipster's" suit, usually associated with 'Swing Dancing Hepcats' and Swing / Jazz music
in the 1920's but later, was also popular with the Latin Chicano scene as well. The Jacket or Coat is characterized by broad padded shoulders, large lapels, and a longer than normal suit jacket, usually knee-length with the Pants characterized by a high waist, baggy thighs, and close pant cuffs. The chain was a long watch chain for the ones who could afford it (while some used the pull chain off the toilet if they couldn't afford the custom chain.) Often times a wide Brimmed or "Pancake Hat" would be worn, sometimes with a feather out the back.
It is reputed to have been originally inspired by a custom order based on the civil war period costume. Cab Calloway helped to make the Zoot Suit popular. Cab Calloway can be seen in the 1920/30's wearing one in his performances (see Stormy Weather clip below). The suit became very popular in the 1930/40s era among the teens, entertainers and unfortunately street thugs. In 1942 Zoot Suit production was halted due to the war effort due to excessive Fabric use.
In later years the Pachucos and Pachucas represented a new generation of Mexican American youth, which arrived on the public scene in the 1940s. The Zoot Suit Riots happened in East Los Angeles in 1943. In June of 1943, Sailors were on leave and were in town (supposedly sick of the zooters due to the Sleepy Lagoon murder) were they came looking for trouble and found it. During this leave a few words were thrown back and forth about being un-patriotic by wearing one (as they were seen as un patriotic since the goverment asked tailors to stop making them) ... and a fight broke out with a Chicano injuring a sailor, however over 125 people were hurt in the skirmish.... The next day over 200 sailors and even more civilians were back for revenge, Beating up almost anyone who was Hispanic and stripping and burning their distinctive zoot suits. This lasted for quite a few days (over 10.)
These riots would lead to the Zoot Suit laws (WPB banning Zoot suits.) It finally ended when the Navy stepped in and restricted all off-shore leave in Los Angeles. In the Sleepy Lagoon incident, a man was murdered during a mass brawl in August 1942. Twenty-two young men, all but one of Mexican descent, were tried and convicted of the crime (in 1944, all convictions were reversed).
The Chicano movement of the 1960s–1980s cast these events as key moments in the political awakening of Mexican Americans and pachucos as exemplars of Chicano identity.
The wearer of a zoot suit was often seen by mainstream society as "scary" or "dangerous," aka the Bad Boy type, while those within the culture saw the suits as a symbol of class, fashion and culture. You were cool in a Zoot Suit as one person put it.
The women were not left out in the cold either when it came to Zoot Suits. The Mexican American woman zoot suiter, or Pachuca as she was called, often wore a V-neck sweater or a long, broad-shouldered coat, a knee-length pleated skirt, fishnet stockings or bobby socks, platform heels or saddle shoes, dark lipstick, and a bouffant. Or she donned the same style of zoot suit that her male counterparts wore. They took part in the riots as well and fought right alongside the men.
There is a really great 1981 film called Zoot Suit (see clip) by Luis Valdez. It stars Edward James Olmos, Tyne Daly, Charles Aidman, Daniel Valdez, John Anderson and is based on the riots. I have to say that Olmos does a frickin' fantastic job in his portrayal of "El Pachuco". It also has some very good Latin dancing and swing as well, check it out, also 1941 with John Belushi is a fun and good film as well. It has some nice dance scenes and very funny, is great for a rainy nights.