Kathy Peiss


On her book Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

Cover Interview of August 28, 2011

A close-up

I hope a browsing reader would start with the epigraphs that open the book, and then turn the page to the introduction.

The epigraphs include quotations from such figures as Eudora Welty, Langston Hughes, and Cab Calloway, and they capture the enigmatic quality of the zoot suit to Americans at the time. To one commentator, it was a sign of the “weakness of American civilization,” to another, “the only totally and truly American civilian suit.”  On a single page, they show how this style could be simultaneously magical and sensual, mysterious and dangerous, a sign of incipient resistance and a claim to patriotism.

The book’s introduction presents the book’s subject in a way that, I hope, is both enticing and provocative.  Through this history, I contend with an intellectual tradition of understanding subcultures and youth style, and demonstrate a more complex way to consider the relationship between cultural style and politics.

At the same time, I want readers to have fun with the book.  There are conflicting stories of the origins of the zoot suit, its connections to the world of swing music, jive talk, and wartime popular culture, and the often comical contortions of academics as they tried to interpret a style of clothing.