Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A fashion revolution

My trip to Atlanta, in addition to letting me spend some much needed time with two of my favorite people, also gave me some much needed time with two of my favorite podcasters.
Josh Clark and Charles W. Bryant host the show Stuff You Should Know, one of the podcasts created by the good folks at They do 30-minute shows about how things work; things lake samurai, prisons, polygraphs, and a bunch of other stuff you never knew you needed to know.
Today, I learned about the zoot suit. The zoot suit, described by one as "a killer diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats, and padded like a lunatic's cell," is popular in the 1930s and 40s, largely among minorities. A couple of sites online attribute this description to Malcolm X, a big fan of the look back in his big pimpin' days; I have my doubts. Especially since most of those references contain the same exact intro text: "...a young Malcolm X described the zoot suit as..." leading me to believe all the instances were copied and pasted from Wikipedia. But I digress as usual.
So the zoot suit, like the one that Cab Calloway is wearing below, is an oversized, draped coat with nipple high pants that balloon at the top and taper or are pegged at the ankle. 
There are lots of stories as to where the zoot suit came from; the one they mention in the podcast is that a bus driver was visiting Georgia and asked a tailor for a suit that looked like one Rhett Butler would wear. 

The side by side makes me think of one of my favorite cake wrecks (in which the customer asked for the cake on the left and got the cake on the right):

Digressing again. Anyhoo, we're not really sure where the word zoot came from. Cab Calloway says that the word means exaggerated, but that may have come about after - it's possible that zoot suit, like killer diller is jive rhyming slang.
the suit is popular in the 30s and 40s, and like I said, it's popular with minorities. Naturally, white folks were threatened. It gets worse once the war starts and the government starts urging people to wear more streamlined clothing to save on fabric. Now wearing these material-heavy suits is unpatriotic. 
It's this perceived defiance, along with general fear of minorities, that causes the press, especially in LA, to frame these zoot-suiters, as they call them, as gangsters and thugs. Zoot-suiters begin to clash with servicemen, and in California in 1943, a series of scuffles between the two groups turns into an outright riot in which servicemen pile into cabs, drive down to the ghetto, beat the crap out of whatever minorities they can get their hands on, then strip them and take their clothes. 
Police arrest few to no servicemen, but hundreds of minorities, and eventually LA banned the wearing of zoot suits. Because clearly that was the problem.
This story kind of made me think about the whole issue of saggy pants today. The sagging style came to prominence in the 90s when artists like Ice-T and Too Short (according to began sporting it, and it has been arousing ire fairly consistently ever since. The question is, why? I have to admit, whenever I see a kid sagging, my urge to walk over and pull their pants up for them is overwhelming. It's an extremely foolish look, and I can't fathom its staying power. But is there something inherently wrong with it?
Like the zoot suit, sagging is generally associated with thugs and lowlifes and, like the zoot suit, is most popular among minority males. But is it fair to characterize the style as belonging to thugs? Well, unlike the zoot suit, sagging probably is related to criminal behavior in an exceedingly indirect way. All my sources indicate that the style probably does descend from the fact that people in prisons aren't generally allowed belts, and thus their pants are always falling down. Despite what the Internet would have you believe, however, this is not how gay men in prison signal that they want cock. That doesn't even make sense. The style is also not a vehicle for concealing a weapon. That doesn't make sense either... if your pants are already falling off, they aren't going to be a particularly practical place for your piece. Baggy shirts, yes, baggy pants, no. One could even argue that saggy pants would make crime a bit harder in that it's really hard to run in them. Nothing is funnier to me than watching a kid running down the street holding his sagging pants up like they're petticoats.
But how many people who sag their pants have any idea about the whole prison thing? Saggy pants may look absurd, but they're as harmless as zoot suits. I wonder how much of people's hatred of saggy pants has to do with underlying racism. Then again, people really hate hipsters, and I don't know that it has anything to do with society's underlying hatred of white kids who think they're better than everyone else.


Megi said...

I must say that is _exactly_ the reason I hate hipsters. For real.
However, the reason I don't like saggy pants because I don't need to see everyone's drawers.

p.s. And now I miss you again. Good job.

Anonymous said...

Wait. How did I miss that you were coming to Atlanta?!