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Riotous history of high-waisted pants, “the reet pleat and the stuff cuff ”

September, 2010

We are familiar with how ladies’ skirt lengths rose and fell from the 1920s through to the 1990s, when Madonna succeeded in not wearing a skirt at all.

We are confronted by a generation of young men who have decided for reasons that are not always clear to wear their pants hovering around their knees, often leaving their taste in underwear, or even the upper part of their buttocks, exposed.

This has perplexed a growing number of adults who ask: “Why? Is it a form of self-expression?”

The 1979 play Zoot Suit dramatizes the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial – when a group of Mexican-Americans were wrongfully charged – and the Zoot Suit Riots. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Not likely, if they are wearing their pants the same way their friends and heroes are wearing them.

As every post-adolescent discovers, being cool or “so hood” is just a slavish nod to group conformity. (Are you listening, all you graffiti taggers who are degrading the landscape?)

In the 1940s, these young men’s grandfathers thought it was “hep” to wear zoot-suits. In a book about Montreal during that period and into the 1950s, City Unique, author William Weintraub discusses the lead-up to the zoot-suit riots of 1944, when “servicemen, mostly sailors, battled in the streets with youths whose clothing they found offensive.”

The zoot-suit featured a knee-length jacket with wide shoulders, and pegged, heavily pleated balloon pants “which came up well above the waist” (italics added).

Even more curious was the wartime version of bling: The pants were often worn with key chains that “hung down from the belt to the knee.”

This outfit was assumed to be a rip-off of the way jazz musicians and such idols as Frank Sinatra dressed.

(A newer form of male dress-up was echoed by rock singer Justin Timberlake’s slim-line three-piece suits. The zoot-suit mantra: “The drape shape with the reet pleat and the stuff cuff,” sounds like a line of rap.)

When, in 1944, zoot-suiters in Verdun “taunted” servicemen by calling them “suckers” (the war was not popular in Quebec), a riot broke out.

Federal Justice Minister Louis St-Laurent expounded the theory that the sailors were inflamed by the zoot-suit’s tight narrow cuffs, as they were worlds away from the sailors’ wide bell-bottoms.

Or was the riot caused by guys fighting over a girl?

Whatever the reason, sailors and servicemen chased these hapless, “cowering” zoot-suiters through the streets, caught a number of them, and stripped them naked.

Although zoot suits had become illegal in the U.S. and Canada in 1942, in an effort to ration fabric and textiles during wartime, the demand for zoot suits did not decline and riots occurred in both countries.

There were clashes between zoot-suiters and servicemen in several U.S. countries, most notably in Los Angeles in 1943.

There is an ample supply of material now for several generations of high-fashion, low-hanging pants. Be warned that we may have to endure a continuing phase of “the drape with the peek cheeks and the ruff cuffs.”

Richard Orlando is an English tutor at LaSalle College.

Pants on the ground

Another rapper of sorts, 62-year-old General Larry Platt auditioned this year for American Idol.

His original composition was Pants on the Ground, the lyrics of which begin: “Pants on the ground/Pants on the ground/ Lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground.”

The performance has become a YouTube hit, but Platt was disqualified because the maximum age for contestants is 28.



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