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1930s Fashion —
A Zoot Suit and Pork Pie Hat

Black Zoot Suit Costume

By the time I was sixteen I was six feet tall and had to shave every day. I announced that since I had gone from short pants as a little boy, to knickers, then to long pants, it was time I was allowed to purchase my own clothes without my mother’s accompaniment. Dad agreed. My mother, who must have begun to realize she was losing her little boy, nodded reluctantly.

I was too tall to get a suit off the rack (there were no "tall man" shops in 1939). If you were my height, you usually had to wear a suit with the jacket a little short and the trousers let out as far as they could go. Or, you had your clothes made to measure, which was not quite as expensive as made to order.

Dad gave me thirty-five dollars and told me to go to a tailor shop on 3rd Avenue on the lower east side where they could make me a made-to-measure suit out of material of my choice. Boy, did I feel grown up. I wanted the latest in fashions.

After dinner, on the day I picked up my purchase, I announced that I was going to show off my new suit. I emerged from my bedroom into the living room, expecting applause.

The reaction wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for.

My mother took one look and put a hand across her eyes. My father’s mouth dropped open slightly. He reached from his wing chair to a small table and poured himself a scotch, took a gulp, and sat back to examine me more carefully.

The jacket came down to my knees and had sharp corners and a single button at the pinched-in waist. Wide lapels, of course, and wide padded shoulders. The trousers ballooned out, pressed without a vertical crease, and were so tight at the cuffs it was impossible to put them on if I already was wearing shoes.

"Harry," my mother finally said, lowering her hand and looking at me as if I was some stranger who had just wandered in, "You’re not going to let him wear that, are you?"

"What do you mean?" I exploded, "this is a zoot suit, the latest fashion! This is strictly reserved for my Friday and Saturday nights going out suit."

My father finally found his voice. "Where did you get the hat?" he asked. After all, he was a hatter.

"Only place they had ‘em. Harlem. Isn’t it great, with the wide brim and the pork pie crown? Almost the same color as the suit."

"Why green?" my mother asked. "Couldn’t you have chosen a dark blue or medium gray?"

"That’s not hip, besides, I already have a blue suit and a gray one," I told these poor uninformed people. "This green is not easy to find, especially with the double shadow stripe."

"Well," said my father, sort of resigned, "if that’s what they’re wearing and you’re not ashamed to be seen out in it, I guess it’s okay."

"On one condition," my mother added, "not when you go to dinner with us."

"That’s fair," I said. I had no intention of letting myself be seen with them while wearing my zoot suit. That Friday night, I presented myself to my friends in my new threads and the reception was overwhelming. I was a hit! I wore that suit, and took care of it carefully for two years, until I graduated prep school and retreated to a more conservative cut for college. But that green suit and pork pie hat attracted girls like a magnet grabs iron filings.

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