A Zoot Suit and Pork Pie Hat
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
mothers 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,
The reaction wasnt exactly what Id hoped for.
My mother took one look and put a hand across her eyes. My
fathers 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, "Youre 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
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. Isnt it great, with
the wide brim and the pork pie crown? Almost the same color as the suit."
"Why green?" my mother asked. "Couldnt you have
chosen a dark blue or medium gray?"
"Thats 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
thats what theyre wearing and youre not ashamed to be seen out in it, I
guess its okay."
"On one condition," my mother added, "not when you go to
dinner with us."
"Thats 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.