Zoot Me Up!

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

People have always known, Joe Coleman says, that the Colemans' interest in zoot suits went deeper than simple economics. "If somebody's in it just for money, people don't want to deal with them," says Coleman. But neither he nor his wife are much interested in analyzing the bonding between Chicano zoot suiters and their own, ardently black-identified family, which follows race issues closely and whose males walked in the Million Man March.

"People are people; you just tell them the truth, they tend to tell you the truth," Coleman says. "And when you know them, you tend to like them."

But as the Colemans became more familiar, both through business and their own affinity, with Houston's Mexican-Americans, another change happened, too. The young Chicano kids who originally came for clothes started returning for something else: Virginia and Joe Coleman, who treated them the way grownups used to treat kids when they were growing up back in the tiny town of Heflin, Louisiana.

It's after school on a Thursday afternoon, and the visitors to Coleman's Men's Wear shop are Latino. But they're not pachucos. Instead, they're high schoolers dressed to droopy-jeans excess and a Mexican-American mother with her niece and her grandson, in just to say "hi." No one seems to be buying, and neither the imposing Joe Coleman, nor petite, soft-spoken Virginia, seems to mind in the least.

"Go look at the Coleman Hall of Fame," he invites the teenagers.
They don't need to be told what that is, and they disappear happily to peruse a long hall at the back of the store, where Virginia Coleman has painstakingly mounted dozens of pictures of Houstonians posing in zoot suits. The variety is impressive. There's a tiny Tom Thumb of a toddler, turned out in a microscopic blue suit and preening before a doorway; there's a curvy teenage girl who brings the suit's proportions a whole different allure; there are also public figures, Hispanic TV reporters and out-of-town Coleman's clients, all posturing lavishly in their zoot suits.

In one picture, a San Antonio man appears in a sort of "before" picture, stolidly facing the camera in a cowboy hat, large silver belt buckle and worn brown boots. Beside this photo is pasted the man's "after": he's oozing with attitude, hair slicked back with pomade, and wearing a white Coleman zoot suit.

"Any time you feel good about how you look, you can do interesting things," Virginia Coleman says softly. Virginia's voice is nearly inaudible sometimes; she usually speaks up only in the intervals when her husband has fallen silent. But Coleman is a former HPD officer, and she knows something about commanding attention. Her theory is that although she was small, the way she presented herself made young hoodlums respect her. When she quit police work to pursue her lifelong avocation of tailoring, she set up a zoot suit dance troupe, the Coleman Strutters, to teach neighborhood kids self-esteem and discipline. "The Coleman Strutters couldn't perform without getting good grades," Virginia Coleman says. "I could take any child, any bashful child, put him in a zoot suit and get him to do anything."

Of course, it wasn't the zoot suit alone that worked the magic; it was the recognition, the attention, that came with it. Even more than her husband, Virginia Coleman seems to have an abiding knowledge of why this counts.

Back in high school, Virginia Coleman was "quality," a good student, a straight arrow. But she often got oveR>rlooked; even today, she's easily overshadowed by her gregarious husband. "She didn't get the credit she was due," Joe Coleman says ruefully. "She never got the proper credit" -- for acing high school, for founding Coleman's Men's Wear, for teaching her husband how to sew. Though her husband is the more public figure, it's Virginia Coleman who designs most of the zoot suits, and she's the one who best articulates why even those who don't buy the suits keep returning to Coleman's to rent or simply admire them.

"I think we make people feel relaxed. I make them feel I like them," she says. And it's Virginia Coleman who may best appreciate the thrill of vaulting, with a zoot suit, from someone ordinary into a star.

One of her favorite stories is of the woman who came all the way from Mexico to Coleman's because her son was paralyzingly shy.

"He was very withdrawn; he wouldn't even look you in the eye. He'd only stare down at his feet," Virginia Coleman says. Somehow, though, the mother knew of Coleman's, and one day appeared to buy a zoot suit for her boy.

As soon as he put it on, some kind of alchemy occurred. Almost magically, Virginia Coleman says, the teenager's spine slid into the pachuco's slinky, backward lean. One hand in his pocket, he lifted his head up high and back, then coolly watched the world below like an amused god. If you spoke to him, he calmly looked you in the eye.

A few months later, the teenager returned from Mexico and bought himself another zoot suit. By then, his whole personality had changed. "The zoot suit," says Virginia Coleman, "made him someone different."

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