Five

The Zoots were a subculture formed, first in America, and later in France during the Second World War, where they were called the Zazous.

The zoot suit originated in an African American comedy show in the 1930s and was popularised by jazz singers on the dance floors of Harlem, Chicago and Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s.

Zazous dressed in loosely fitting suits with large lapels and baggy trousers tapered at the ankles to accentuate their motions when they danced.

The movement was likely a reaction to the pressure of the Great Depression; a conscious existential outpouring of expression during a time of great austerity and oppression.

The zoot suit became popular among minorities, while the affluent middle class viewed its wearers as rebellious and delinquent. This cultural rift widened over the early forties, culminating in the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943.

Soldiers, sailors and civilians stripped the clothes from zoot-suiters, threw them to the ground and beat them, in a wave of violence that lasted almost a week. And, in a sight that has become all too familiar in recent years, the police simply stood aside, allowing the aggressors to walk free, only arresting the victims… 

The majority of the rioting happened in June 1943 in Los Angeles, with similar occurrences taking place across the country.

In France, the anti-fascist Zazous were also swinging to jazz and bebop and engaging in countless forbidden and illicit behaviours in an effort to express their opposition to the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. They wore their hair long when told to cut it and defied clothes rationing regulations. Some even wore the yellow star as an emblem of protest and in support of the Jewish people. 

American historian Kathy Peiss described this subculture as perhaps the first time in history that “…fashion was believed to be the cause of widespread civil unrest.”

In 1956 Elvis Presley dressed in a zoot-style suit to distinguish himself firmly as a counter-cultural figure. 

It was one of these nights, about six years into our turbulent friendship. Some years have passed since I saw Andrew last.

He opened the door of his very-English Marylebone flat and, with a huge grin on his face and announced that he had terribly insulted his senior partners on a work trip to Italy.

I walked down the hall, sat on his lightly coloured, tuxedo sofa in the soft-lit living room and listened to the sound of ice cracking as he poured us drinks. 

He brought over a pint of wine for me (I had matured a little, or perhaps grown weary), the usual pint of vodka for him, and continued with the story.

In essence, he had gotten unrecognisably drunk at a dinner party after a day of skiing and told his bosses, in so many words, that they were idiots.

It struck me that this was kind of a bad thing, but he seemed completely thrilled.

It was like he felt this immense accomplishment that filled his eyes with twinkles and his chest with pride.

Perhaps he had begun to shed his chains, I thought.

Later I noticed the eczema patch on his left hand had grown bigger.

In the morning after I left, I heard he wrenched the door three times.

A month later, he told me he had left his job and was moving to New York.