The opportunity to enhance museums’ permanent collection is always a consideration when curators organized an exhibition. The special exhibition Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear inspired numerous fancy dress museums to forge a strategy to fully develop their permanent collection of twentieth- and early twenty-first-century menswear. An authentic zoot “zuit” suit fancy dress costume was always at the top of their list.
Flamboyant in style and exaggerated in proportion, the zoot “zuit” suit fancy dress costume 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, who frequented swing clubs and dance halls during the 1930s and early 1940s. Their zoot suit fancy dress costumes, 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.
The big break in acquiring an original zoot suit fancy dress costume came in 2011 when a man’s wool suit from New Jersey appeared in an East Coast auction catalogue, listed with an estimated value of six to nine hundred dollars. Knowing that it was an extremely rare zoot suit, museums submitted their applications to bid by phone. When the auction began on November 2, the opening bid of five-hundred dollars skyrocketed in less than a minute to bids of five figures. The representative on the other end of the phone line could barely keep up with the pace of bidding. Finally, she said, “Yes, it’s yours!” A hard-fought winning bid for the zoot suit set a new auction record for twentieth-century menswear.