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.

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.

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."

Joe Coleman can understand that change perfectly. A self-described petty "thug" when he was growing up in Louisiana, Coleman nevertheless felt monitored and protected by his town's older generation. "If I did anything wrong in my neighborhood, anybody there could whup my butt," Coleman says. He had a doting mother and aunts, and his father, who was a farmer, would assign him tasks every timeR> Coleman asked for something, impressing on his son that he had to earn what he got. At the all-black high school he attended, most of the cafeteria workers were his relatives; when he got caught stealing milk, he remembers the cafeteria lady who caught him forcing him to apologize to the entire cafeteria.

"That's beautiful," Coleman says. It's a vigilance he carries on with other people's children. In a cluttered cubicle at the back of his shop, Coleman keeps a tattered manila file folder filled with pamphlets and Xeroxes on subjects such as race relations and American history, which he assigns the hip-hop kids and gang wannabes who visit the shop to read. He also keeps his 1962 high school yearbook, to prove to them that he was an athlete and that the haircut he had back then was the same as the fade they wear today.

Not that all his texts are so benign, or so universally accepted. On a ledge beside the watch chains sits a well-read popular encyclopedia of U.S. history. Nearly each page is highlighted or lined. Then, from beside a cash register, Coleman eagerly brings out another book: The True History of the Blacks and the Jews, a Nation of Islam publication that alleges Jews were the pivotal players in the slave trade. "You can't argue with it. It's all quotes from other sources," Coleman says mildly, unaware that the person he's speaking to is part Jewish. Nearby, from a thick manila file of clippings and articles, Coleman fishes out another text: Black Woman, 3/4 of the Black Man's Problems. Does he really believe these things? "Yes, misunderstanding is the root of a lot of problems," Coleman says blandly, seemingly oblivious to how these writings might contrast with the tolerance for which he's well known. Instead, as he shuffles the texts among his dozens of other pamphlets and Xeroxes, Coleman uncritically seems to consider them clues in a puzzle he's still assembling.

Still, unlike other would-be mentors, Coleman's gruff way with a lecture, as well as his own past as a brawler and troublemaker, gives real pause to the kids who come into his store. Brenda Bright, a Dartmouth professor who has written extensively on Houston's low rider culture, recalls watching Coleman talk with a group of high school kids who came into his shop last fall to have memorial T-shirts printed for a murdered friend.

"They had to wait, and while they were there, Coleman was standing there talking to them in a really wonderful and amazing kind of way. I think his own youth was not that much different from theirs. He was talking to them about guns and stuff -- trying to get them to take seriously the idea of staying out of situations where they could get hurt," Bright says. "He did it by telling a whole series of stories about his own foibles as a kid, getting beaten up. He just did this amazing riff with them about how there's always someone stronger than you are .... He was challenging the things that made the most sense to them. He divests them of the pride that gets them into trouble. He has a credibility with them in a way that most adults do not."

In his yearbook, still pristine 32 years later, Coleman appears under the heading, "Most Typical Teenager." That's another key to his appeal: to this day, he remembers brilliantly the power and status struggles that dominate all teenagers' lives -- including the competition for clothes. After all, desiring precisely the right outfit and working toward transcendent grooming aren't just a Chicano thing.

"See him?" Coleman says, pointing to an unlovely looking teenager on a page of his high school yearbook. "That's my cousin. He was voted best dressed. He was ugly as hell, but he was the best dressed guy in school."

To this day, Coleman remembers his cousin's genius at shining his shoes, something of paramount important in 1962's teenage pecking order. All the boys in high school would diligently polish their shoes, painstakingly finishing their task with something called "sole dressing," a shiny black filler rubbed between the top of the shoe and the sole. It was almost impossible to keep the dressing clean, especially since Dubberly High School consisted of a series of modest buildings separated by dirt paths that turned to mud pits whenever it rained.

Coleman remembers admiringly how his cousin could almost supernaturally keep from marring his sole dressing, even in a deluge. "He would walk from one building to the other and -- I could be remembering wrong, but I believe he never ever got any mud on his sole dressing. No water, no mud. I'd look and from what I could see there was nothing on them. You could see him hopping across that yard, and at the end of it they'd be completely clean."

In the Colemans' eyes, there's nothing superficial about that kind of pride. From among the laminated photographs of styling zoot suiters, the Colemans like to take out an old picture of themselves. Circa 1972, it reveals the normally modest Virginia in a plunging-neck, showstopping, leopard-print minidress accented by thigh-high lace-up platform shoes. Beside her is Joe, flexing his athlete's frame in a canary-yellow hot pants suit with sliced-open sleeves that show off his biceps. Virginia made the hot pants outfit for her husband's birthday. Then they wore her creations to the Muhammad Ali-Jimmy Ellis fight at the Astrodome, which was holding a best-dressed contest for its 40,000 attendees.

Guess who won? It was more than 22 years ago, but the photo still dazzles, as does the memory of Joe Coleman leading the other contestants in a grand procession right through the Astrodome to the boxing ring. It's an impressive image, and the Colemans clearly love it. It's the kind of triumph -- of self-expression, of recognition, of at once belonging and gloriously standing out -- that can nourish your soul through a lot of mundane disappointments.

So it's little surprise that the Colemans know what it takes to stitch up an awesome zoot suit.

Posterity is an obsession for Joe Coleman. When he talks about lecturing the kids who enter his shop, he adds that what he tells them, he wants them to tell to their grandkids. Such an obsession fits well with his clients' reverence for their own pasts. For the hip-hop kids who come into Coleman's, the emblems of identity that surround them are magnetic: not just the suits, but the T-shirts emblazoned with "Aztlan" or "Mexico" logos. For the older customers, the men who came of age in the '70s and '80s, Coleman's is where they can reproduce the clothes they once idolized while watching their fathers.

"I used to come here when I was a young kid," says 28-year-old Joseph de la Fuente, an Airborne Express driver who stops into Coleman's shop for a breath of nostalgia. "I used to come in here for the hats. I had a chain, the whole works. Coleman's has been a tradition among the [pachuco] scene -- which is all about low riders, girls, dancing and late nights. And it's about staying clean, having pressed pants, clean clothes. Our dads are the same way."

Marriage, work and 1990s child-rearing have since blurred de la Fuente's neat edges; faint love handles curve the lines of his blue work shirt, and it's harder to keep the classic three-shirt-folds-in-back, two-folds-in-front zoot look intact when you're driving across town making deliveries.

"Back in those days, you wouldn't let your girlfriend or your mother iron your pants for you," de la Fuente notes. "Me and my friends, we would get together and iron for about two hours. We'd all come out clean, hang on the corner. We'd have nothing to do, but we'd be clean. Then we'd say -- let's go hang out at Coleman's."

For client Ricardo Tijerina, the Coleman's look is a still-living icon. Tijerina met Coleman just last year. Lots of Tijerina's friend have zoot suits; Tijerina had three, plus five pairs of Stacy Adams shoes, until he sold them after hitting hard times a few years back. Now Tijerina's buying another suit from Coleman on layaway, one made in a discreet, dove gray plaid. And the best thing about it is that his father, grandfather and great grandfather dressed exactly the same way.

"My dad was a pachuco -- what they call a cool cat," says Tijerina. "He had the Stacy Adams shoes, the low rider haircut, and the walk. The older he gets, the grouchier he gets, but he still combs back with Three Flowers and stuff. I'm 32, and I hope I never get over it.

"I remember my great grandpa wearing those Stacy Adams shoes and those cocky pants," he adds, making the sort of connection that Virginia and Joe Coleman live for and design suits for. How long did Tijerina's grandfather maintain his zoot suit affiliation? "Until," Tijerina says, "the day he died.

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