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How LACMA located an authentic zoot suit

zoot-suit-lacma-640crop.jpgFor LACMA's new exhibition on men's fashion through the years, the curators really wanted to get hold of a real zoot suit from the World War II era. Zoot suits were such a strong fashion statement that their presence helped spark racist attacks on Latino men in downtown Los Angeles during the war years, an episode remembered in LA lore as the Zoot Suit Riots. The museum's Unframed blog explains the quest for a rare but authentic example. The exhibition, Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015, opens April 10.

Flamboyant in style and exaggerated in proportion, the zoot suit is linked to a relatively small subculture, yet it represents a significant moment in the history of menswear. Its exact origin is unknown, but it was closely associated with urban youths, particularly those of African American, Latino, Jewish descent, and those from immigrant communities, who frequented swing clubs and dance halls during the 1930s and early 1940s. Their zoot suits, defined by overtly broad shoulders with wide, pegged sleeves, narrow hips, and deeply pleated pegged trousers, allowed for ease of movement while creating an image of extreme dandyism.


For more than a decade, curators in the department of Costume and Textiles had been in search of an authentic 1930s–‘40s-era zoot suit. Our quest proved extremely difficult due partly to WWII-era restrictions imposed by the War Production Board in March 1942 to reduce the amount of fabric used in garment construction, thereby limiting the production of the voluminous zoot suit. Later, many examples may also have been remade into other garments, as zoot suits required much more fabric to create than a typical suit. And zoot suits simply may not have survived use, whether from day-to-day wear, nighttime dances of the fashionable jitterbug or Lindy Hop, or the so-called “Zoot Suit Riots” that erupted between American servicemen and zoot-suiters across America and beyond.

They found the full suit through kind of a lucky break. More at the blog.

zoot-suit-lacma-full.jpgZoot Suit, 1940–1942, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Ellen A. Michelson. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Previously on LA Observed:
Costume designer Jenny Eagan discusses her Emmy nominated work on 'Olive Kitteridge'

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Haute couture in Basque Country: Visiting the Balenciaga Museum
Kimono exhibit at LACMA
A day at the museum for three Los Angeles designers
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