Constellation SLTS 4/8 – Zoot Suits and Teds

In this lecture we began to look further into the motivations of certain groups within society and culture to cultivate styles and fashion statements. We looked at examples of fashion being used as protest, as activism and as way to challenge hegemonic values.

The Zoot Suit

Fashion is weird

The Zoot Suit emerged during World War II in inner city America. It was a style created and worn by African American and Latino minorities. It is a resignification (Clark, Hall and Jefferson 1975, p110) of the traditional suit. The suit is about as establishment as an item of dress can be. Worn by gentlemen associated with class, success and  acumen. Middle or upper class, mainstream members of society.

What the Zoot suit did was to take the traditional notion of a suit and turn it on its head. Where a suit tends to be unassuming and smart (often grey, black or navy), with practical fittings and accutrements. The Zoot Suit was often depicted in garish greens and yellows, in an attempt to stand out. This combined with exaggeration is every aspect of the ensemble. Flared trousers, large collars, oversize hats and chains and excessively long suit jackets.

The intent behind this manner of dress was to some degree, conspicuous wealth. Wearing impractically exaggerated clothing to show that you could. However it was also an act of rebellion. Firstly, the concept of the suit had been altered dramatically, breaking with generally accepted rules of dress. Not only this but by 1942, rationing of fabric dictated that excessive outfits such as a Zoot suit, were now effectively illegal. They were considered unpatriotic as were their wearers.

All of these connotations were purposefully designed. The garments were designed as protest against America’s hypocrisy in fighting Jewish repression in Europe while actively segregating at home. and using African American and other minority troops to fight. The Zoot suit was a method of expressing ones convictions through clothing and style. It was more than clothing, it was the way you walked and the way you talked. African American Jive was a movement at the time within music and Zoot Suit wearers employed its slang to define themselves against White Americans.

The key to a movement such as this is that they do not invent new apparel, but instead employ clothing with a given meaning and corrupt or alter it to suit their needs and upset the establishment in doing so.


The Teddy Boys

At the outset of the 1950s working class boys and young men began to adopt a new style of clothing. As they begn to earn disposable incomes they created a pseudo ‘unifrom’ based on the Edwardian Gentleman’s attire, recently reintroduced by Saville Rowe .

The Teddy movement was a revolution is fashion and social norms as rough street kids were now dressing in the manner of the aristocracy and creating a negative associatin with the style. Crimes by ‘Teddy Boys’ were widely reported and polite society was deeply wary of them. This had connotations for the upper classes who did not want such negative associations.

This act of resignification of a brand or style is in the same vain as the chavs adopting Burberry. Burberry wanted nothing to do with the new trend but had no control over who bought their clothing and how they effected the brand perception.

Where Zoot suits and Teds share ground

  • Both trends were fundamentally linked to existing hegemonic styles. They did not invent a new style. They simply invented a new expression by changing the meaning of that style. Resignification through exaggerating, enhancing and adapting items of existing styles.
  • The lower rungs of society (Racial Minorities in America and Working class British lads) adopted items of clothing from the higher rungs (White middle class Americans and the British aristocracy. They owned them and made them theirs.
  • Both movements were at some level, protest movements. The Zoot Suit wearers protesting the social injustice of segregation and the Teds the entrenched class system that had placed them at the bottom of the heap and discriminated against them for their roots.

Clothes provide the instruments that empower the body to counteract a dominant ideology”

-Tulloch, 2006, p304

This quote exemplifies the important role of dress in society. It is a method within the overarching practice of design that can bring about societal and cultural change through challenging and rebelling against the norm.

My Thoughts

The further into fashion trends and societal subcultures we probe, the more I’ve come to understand that fashion is not simply an aimless and unguided series of people trying to stand out. Instead, it is a complex phenomenon of visual language wherein people attempt to convey sentiments without words. Anything can be a stimulus of a fashion trend. Anything can be incorporated into that trend. And any position can be demonstrated with that trend.



Author: David Rothwell

I am a Graphic Communication student at Cardiff Metropolitan School of Art and Design If you like any of my work, have feedback (good or bad) or would like to get in touch, please do

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