Zoot Me Up!

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

Not that everyone considered zoot suiters cool. During the years of WWII, the zoot suit was caricatured by the mainstream as being the dress of reefer-mad gangsters. And in fact, along with scene-making posers, the pachucos did include true gangsters. There was, though, more to the prejudice against zoot suiters. Their suits' folds of excess material was seen as an affront to the mainstream's wartime austerity. In 1942, the murder of a Chicano gang member led to the trumped-up arrest of 38 others in Los Angeles' celebrated Sleepy Lagoon trial. Already estranged from Anglo culture, zoot suiters found themselves confronting Anglo sailors in a string of Los Angeles bar fights. On June 3, 1942, a band of sailors jumped a group of zoot-suited Latinos, igniting a chain of violence that would be called the zoot suit riots. By the fourth day, a mob surged through Los Angeles seeking zoot suiters, whom they beat, dragged into the streets, stripped of their clothes and jeered at.

Following that, the zoot look all but disappeared. It took three decades for the zoot suit to be reinvented as a mark of Latino culture. The catalyst was Zoot Suit, a 1976 play by Luis Valdez that recalled the time of the L.A. riots and which became a smash theatrical success and later, a movie. The zoot suit aesthetic, which had never wholly died, was now ardently embraced by Chicanos as an expression of cultural pride. And the evidence could be found in the pages of magazines such as Low Rider.

Before Del Bosque showed him one of those pages, no one had ever asked Joe Coleman, who, with his wife, opened their shop a year earlier, for such an outfit. But the Del Bosques were good friends of the Colemans. Joe and Virginia stopped by the restaurant a few times every day for coffee and meals; the Del Bosques would drop into the tailor shop just to visit. And the look young Rene wanted was not unfamiliar, Joe Coleman thought as he examined the photo. It showed a suit jacket as much as a foot longer than a conventional one. The waistband was high, with a military-style notch in the back and anchored with suspenders. At the ankles, the cuffs were abnormally narrow, the better to show off glossy two-toned Stacy Adams shoes.

Joe Coleman remembered seeing that look in two other places. From his childhood, he recalled the flamboyant suits worn by big band leader Cab Calloway in movies such as Lena Horne's Stormy Weather. The look Rene Del Bosque wanted also wasn't too different from another 1960s style called a walking suit. That, too, had the long coat, jaunty black hat and suspenders, though the shoes were platforms and the pants were bell-bottomed, not flared. Not that Coleman particularly approved of the look. "The only person who ever wore a walking suit," Coleman notes, "was a well-dressed pimp."

But clearly, the look meant something special to Rene Del Bosque, and Coleman agreed to try copying it. His first attempt was a bit off: when Del Bosque came by for his suit a few weeks after showing Coleman the picture, he found that the pants' cuffs were so narrow he couldn't get his feet through them. So Joe Coleman cut them open and sewed zippers in. The look lacked a zoot suit's ritualistic precision, though, and Del Bosque never wore the suit. So he ordered another one, and this time, he says today, Coleman's creation "was perfect."

Del Bosque, who's now a freelance construction contractor, wore the zoot suit for a year and a half. His younger brother liked what he saw, and he ordered one, too. They were sensations at weddings, quinceaĖeras and any other formal occasions the brothers could think of to attend. Soon, Del Bosque says, other teenagers from their northeast Houston Mexican-American neighborhood were itching for their own sharp Coleman's zoot suit.

His next customers, Coleman recalls, were three members of the Latin Attractions low rider car club. Each suit set them back about $600; it was a big investment in 1979, but then again, as Coleman points out, a zoot suit is like a tuxedo. You can wear it to a funeral or to a wedding. And you could wear it to compete in the zoot suit contests that, in the 1980s, started taking place at every low rider car show.

Heartened by their success, Coleman's Men's Wear began stocking zootish accessories. A zoot suit alone is like a Christmas tree without decorations, and in the shadowy, compact store with its back room for tailoring, the Colemans started selling the works: suspenders; skinny, brilliant-hued neckties; chunky cufflinks; sporty, broad-brimmed black fedoras with little red feathers tucked in the bands.

It wasn't long before the name "Coleman's" became synonymous with style and hipness among Latino teenagers in northeast Houston and the Heights. Even those who didn't wear zoot suits talked about those who did. The Colemans began making two or three suits a month, and built up a stock of about 40 more suits for rental.

It was more than just the store's content that began changing, though. After hanging out at so many car shows to check out the zoot suit contests, Coleman found himself becoming a true low rider aficionado. His sons Tyron and Joel, around the same ages as the Del Bosque boys, made friends among low riders and wore zoot suits to their high school dances; for Joel's prom, his low rider pals picked him up at home in a slow moving caravan, ritualistically saluting him with their state-of-the-art hydraulic lifts and deep-thumping sound systems. Eventually, both Coleman sons would end up marrying Mexican-American women.

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