Penn Prof Unpacks the Zoot Suit in “Thinking With the Past” Lecture

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | | 215-898-6460March 18, 2013

The zoot suit is remembered as a “killer-diller” men’s suit of a long bygone era, but it was more than just a fashion statement, as research by Kathy Peiss, a University of Pennsylvania historian, shows. 

Marked by an extreme silhouette, a long drape-shaped jacket with wide shoulders and baggy, pleated pants, pegged at the ankle, it was first embraced by African-Americans in the 1940s and later Latinos, working-class youth and “swing kids.” 

Popularized by jazz greats Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie, the suit was controversial for appearing to spark violence in Los Angeles in an event that has gone down in history as the 1943 “zoot suit riot.”  

Peiss will take a closer look at the oversized menswear in a March 20 lecture, “The Zoot Suit in American Culture,” at 7 p.m. at the Parkway Central Library at 1901 Vine St. in Philadelphia. Online registration is available at

The talk, part of the History Department’s “Thinking With the Past” lecture series, is free and open to the public. Each talk begins at 7 p.m. in Room 108 of the Library. Authors will sign copies of their books provided for sale by the Penn Book Center. 

“My lecture examines why this extreme urban style emerged, and why it was both compelling and scandalous,” says Peiss, author of the 2011 Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style. The book is an exploration of the fashion and its mysterious career during World War II and after, as it spread from Harlem across the United States and around the world.

Peiss is the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History in the School of Arts and Sciences and teaches modern U.S. cultural history and the history of gender and sexuality. Her other publications include Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986) and Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture (1998.)

The third and final talk of the History Department series for 2012-13 will be on April 22 with Penn history professor Jonathan Steinberg lecturing on “Anti-Semitism and the Tragedy of German Jewry” and Otto von Bismarck.

Additional information is available from  Nari Baughman at