What about those fellows waiting still and silent there on the platform, so still and silent they clash with the crowd in their very immobility, standing noisy in their very silence; harsh as a cry of terror in their quietness? What about these three boys, coming now along the platform, tall and slender, walking with swinging shoulders in their well-pressed, too-hot-for-summer suits, their collars high and tight about their necks, their identical hats of black cheap felt set upon the crowns of their heads with a severe formality above their conked hair? It was as though I'd never seen their like before: walking slowly, their shoulders swaying, their legs swinging from their hips in trousers that ballooned upward from cuffs fitting snug about their ankles; their coats long and hip-tight with shoulders far too broad to be those of natural western men. These fellows whose bodies seemed - what had one of my teachers said of me? - 'You're like one of those African sculptures, distorted in the interest of design.' Well, what design and whose? --Ralph Ellison describes three young men wearing zoot suits in his novel, Invisible Man
The origin of the Zoot Suit did not lie solely with the young southern California Chicanos who wore them in the early forties, but rather in the swing and jazz sub-culture of urban blacks of the late thirties. Cab Calloway wore them during his performances at the Cotton Club. By the late 1930's "zoot" was urban jazz slang for something worn or perfomed in an extravagant style, and since many young blacks wore suits with hugely padded shoulders and pants that were baggy but tapered at the ankles, the term zoot suit passed into common usage. The extravagant costumes became popular among Urban Blacks and Latinos, (sometimes referred to as "pachucos")
In March 1942, the War Production Board's first rationing act attempted to institute a 26% cut-back in the use of fabrics. The War Production Board made regulations for wartime manufacture which effectively forbade the creation of zoot-suits. Most legitimate tailoring companies ceased to manufacture or advertise any suits that fell outside the War Production Board's guide lines.
However, the demand for zoot-suits did not decrease and a network of bootleg tailors based in Los Angeles and New York continued to make the outfits.
In 1943 tensions between the Hispanic youth who were seen wearing the costumes and white servicemen who were enraged by the ouright flouting of war regulations. In the first weekend of the riots, over sixty youths wearing zoot suits were jailed. In the ensuing weeks, on-leave servicemen tracked down and stripped young men of their suits, often injuring them. Initially confined to Los Angeles in the early weeks of June, 1943, the riots spread to such urban center as Detroit and Pittsburgh.
Some information taken from The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare by Stuart Cosgrove, copyright 1984