Zoot Me Up!

Joe Coleman, tailor to Houston's zoot suit culture, knows one thing for certain: Sometimes, clothes do make the man.

In a cramped pocket of a shop on the Eastex Freeway recently, Joe Coleman, co-owner of Coleman's Men's Wear, stepped back to watch a suit turn a regular man into a prince.

"It's something else, huh?" said Coleman's client, a portly fellow named Ricardo Tijerina, modeling from the shop's tiny corridor. As he spoke, Tijerina watched his own faint reflection in the store's window. He looked almost hypnotized.

A fantastic silhouette was staring back at him. Long, padded shoulders vaulted horizontally outward; the pants legs fell in great pleats from high over Tijerina's stomach before tapering precipitously into narrowly pegged cuffs. Pointy, obsidian-colored wingtips glinted under the hems. And swinging gracefully into three parallel arcs, a silver watch chain dipped all the way down to the man's ankles, punctuated by a small charm.

Tijerina's outfit was a classic zoot suit, a look first seen among blacks and Chicanos more than half a century ago. And Joe Coleman, who, with his wife Virginia, makes the most famous zoot suits in Houston, knows that even if they number far fewer than they did 50 years ago, zoot suiters are still proud, fanatic, even downright mystical about what those cascades of cloth can mean.

"I would say we look better than movie stars," declares Tijerina gravely, slowly tilting a black-fedoraed head and surveying his image with fascination. "In between when you're born and when you die, you have to do what you really enjoy. Zoot suits are about neatness. About coolness."

"How do I put it?" he continues thoughtfully. "It's all about creativity. You know, Picasso was Spanish. A lot of Chicanos are derived from that heritage. This [look] is Houston. This is Chicano. It's in the blood."

Yet to 49-year-old Joe Coleman, it makes perfect sense that a black business is the heartbeat of this identity-driven Chicano subculture. Not that the Colemans have been restrictive about their tailoring; although the main market for their zoot suits is young Latino men ranging from high school age through their early thirties, over the past 15 years, the Colemans have fashioned zoot suits for blacks and Anglos as well as Latinos. Their suits have been sewn for women, politicians and toddlers, for couples in love and for shy teenage misfits. Each one of their clients, the Colemans believe, somehow transforms when he or she steps into the zoot's regal drape.

To Coleman, a well-dressed man with the physique of a retired football player, zoot suits exemplify a code he and his wife have followed ever since their school days in tiny Heflin, Louisiana. It's a code that applies to everyone, and it can be summed up in a short phrase: attitude makes the man. The way you turn yourself out for the world determines how you get treated back.

"Let me give you a test," Joe Coleman says without preamble one tranquil afternoon in the shop. Business is pretty slow here until school lets out. Then the teenagers, sometimes two girls at a time, sometimes a young couple, filter in to look at the baseball hats, T-shirt logos, bandannas and jewelry that Coleman's offers along with its zoot suit regalia. "Look at this diagram," Coleman says, briskly sketching onto an envelope with burly hands whose thick long fingernails show a faint glint of polish. "I ask kids -- any kids -- when they come in here, this: 'Are you smart or dumb?' Quick, which one are you?

"Now, most of them say, 'Smart,' " Coleman continues, swiftly writing down a large "S." "Then I ask, 'Where do you sit in school, front, middle or back?' Generally, the people in the front make A's and B's in school. People who sit in the middle make C's, and people in the back make D's and F's. I can tell you how you did in school just from where you sat."

There's more, and you can tell with the speed with which Coleman jots arrows and percent signs that this apparently sudden soliloquy is actually oft-performed, reflexive. It's part of a data repertoire Coleman has collected for years, just as he's amassed mementos of his zoot suit clientele.

That attention to detail makes it easy for Coleman to recall just how he became immersed into the zoot suiters' world. It was 1979, and 16-year-old Rene Del Bosque, whose family owned a Mexican restaurant next door, stopped by to ask for a new type of clothing. At the time, Del Bosque was crazy for low rider cars, and the Low Rider magazines he bought had started showing Latino men standing next to their cars while wearing suave, extravagant-looking outfits. As Del Bosque remembers it now, the zoot look he saw in the magazines was viscerally appealing. The flowing lines somehow reflected the style and sass of his favorite low rider cars, and he left it at that. But in fact, the bond between the two aesthetics was no coincidence: in the 1970s, both low rider cars and swashbuckling zoot suits had become icons of the Chicano movement, which aimed to celebrate the hybrid popular culture of Mexican-Americans. The symbol of that aesthetic was the pachuco -- the macho, high-living Chicano hipster who first appeared on the American landscape in the early 1940s.

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