Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Zoot Suit - East LA's Fashion Revolution

Quick, imagine the most elegant male figure you've ever seen. If he's not in a Zoot Suit, then think again. Who can forget the image of Edward James Olmos as El Pachuco in the film version of Luis Valdez's famous play. Or Jim Carrey in that bright yellow Zoot Suit in The Mask.

Though the distinctive suits, first called "drapes," made their original appearance in Harlem, it was the large Chicano population in East LA that made the look their own. And during the repression of the 30s and 40s, the suits became a symbol of resistance and rebellion. The ensuing "Zoot Suit Riots" inspired the Valdez play and subsequent movie - forever enshrining the Zoot Suit in Chicano culture. (image courtesy of El Pachuco, used with permission)

A proper Zoot Suit can still be hard to find. The ensemble includes long, wide-legged trousers called Tramas, and the long Carlango coat replete with wide lapels and notoriously padded shoulders. Shoes must be European, preferably French and often two-tone, made from the finest leather with pointed toes. The look is completed with a long chain that dangles prominently from the belt to the knee and back - tucked into a side pocket. A colorful, brimmed felt hat with a feather tops it all off. Oh, then there's the pose. One foot forward, weight on the back foot with a slight backwards lean, hands in pant pockets or resting on the belt, and a very serious look around the eyes. It helps if you've got a thin, black mustache and a tailored goatee.

You know, when you work hard all week and the system isn't structured to provide your community with all the rewards of the American dream, you make your own dreams. You create your own look, and you wear your best with pride. You dress up for whatever you've got going on on the weekend, and you look sharp. That's what it's all about.

There's this shop in my old neighborhood - Fullerton, California - that has been making Zoot Suits since 1978. That's right, the real deal. Inspired by the play, by the symbolism and by the fashion, Phyllis Estrella made it happen. Now a larger, family enterprise with a really good-looking web site, El Pachuco is a legend in Southern California. These are the suits you see in Lowrider magazine. If you love fashion, and are looking to make a serious statement, check out this place. You won't be sorry.

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