Alford - The Zoot Suit: Its History and Influence 225...

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Fashion Theory , Volume 8, Issue 2, pp. 225–236 Reprints available directly from the Publishers. Photocopying permitted by licence only. © 2004 Berg. Printed in the United Kingdom. Holly Alford Holly Alford is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has degrees in both Costume Design and Fashion, and a Master of Fine Arts in Costume Design. She specializes in the history of twentieth-century fashion with emphasis on African-American style and its influence on European and American popular culture, as well as all technical skills related to clothing design. The Zoot Suit: Its History and Influence Introduction Throughout the twentieth century, African-American men had been discriminated against and stereotyped, but relied on one thing that set them apart from others, and that is the clothing they chose to wear. Living in a society where it is difficult to have a voice, 1 African-American men found self-expression through their own personal style. For African- American men, clothing signifies where they are and more importantly where they want to be (Boston 1998: 15). This is quite evident in the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s when young African-American males were trying to make a cultural identification statement through a suit known
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226 Holly Alford as the Zoot Suit . Besides cultural identification, young men wore the suit as a part of a dance cult, to make a political statement, and unfortunately, for some, to disguise themselves from criminal activity. The zoot suit’s influence was so great that it would have an effect on men’s fashion in the future, and it would become one of the first articles of clothing to cause a spontaneous youth movement among African-American, Hispanic- American, and eventually European and Canadian whites. It would have a social and political effect on Fashion in the 1940s, and it was to be the first article of clothing to cause race rioting throughout the United States and Canada. Description The Zoot suit was best described in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1965). The invisible man describes three young African-American men approach- ing the platform of a New York subway station. Tall and slender. . . their collars high and tight about their necks, their identical hats of black cheap felt set upon the crowns of their heads with a severe formality above their conked hair? 2 . . . Their legs were swinging from their hips in trousers that ballooned upward from cuffs fitting snug about their ankles: their coats long and hip tight with shoulders far too broad to be those of natural men (p. 380). Zoot, as a verb, means something done or worn in an exaggerated style, but as a noun it is the ultimate in clothes. 3 Mainly young African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans wore this killer diller suit.
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Alford - The Zoot Suit: Its History and Influence 225...

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