Zoot suits first appeared in the mid- to late-1930s and were especially popular among young and fashionable African-American men who wanted to be noticed. "They were expensive, attention-getting and identified wearers with the posh club scene of the Harlem Renaissance," says Cynthia Clampitt, a historian who has written about zoot suits and their cultural significance for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's history project.
Although a number of tailors around the country claimed to be the first designers of the suit, no credible evidence points to a single individual being responsible for the look. According to Kathy Peiss, a professor of American history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style," zoot suits were an exaggerated version of what was known as a drape suit -- zoot suits were called "extreme drapes," in fact, and were advertised as such in African-American newspapers at the time.
Made initially out of wool -- and later rayon, as rationing for World War II kicked in -- zoot suits had a number of defining characteristics. Suit pants were worn high on the waist and very tight; below the waist, the pants billowed like parachutes around the thighs and knees before being tied tight at the ankles. Zoot suit jackets also had exaggerated contours, with wide shoulders and sleeves that reached the wearer's fingertips [source: Unger]. Many zoot suiters also donned hats adorned with feathers, wore pointy shoes and sported key chains that dropped all the way to the knees to complete the look.
Peiss says that zoot suits also became associated with swing dance and jitterbugging, two of the more popular dances of the time, because the style of the clothing complemented and accentuated the dance movements. "The fabric swung as the dancers did," she says.
The name zoot suit, of course, is also appropriately quizzical for a fashion that was so unconventional. Some contend that the word zoot has no meaning whatsoever, and is only part of a rhyming jive type of speech common amongst African Americans of the era. However, jazz musician Cab Calloway wrote a jive dictionary in which he described the word as meaning "exaggerated," a term that could be applied to both music and fashion [source: Peiss].
Read on to learn about the zoot suit's evolution from style to statement.