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How LACMA found its zoot suit -- and set a new auction record

For five years, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has been working on an exhibition about the history of men's fashion from the 18th century to the present. And for more than five years, its curators have been desperately trying to acquire one key piece: an authentic 1940s zoot suit.

The flared, broad-shouldered suits popularized by black and Mexican American youth during World War II were cemented into contemporary popular culture by figures such as bandleader Cab Calloway and playwright Luis Valdez, author of the 1979 play "Zoot Suit."

“We had been looking for a long time,” says Sharon Takeda, who oversees LACMA’s department of costume and textiles. “Even back in 2000, when we were preparing [the art and design exhibition] ‘Made in California,’ we had been looking for an authentic zoot suit. We knew that our colleagues at the Victoria & Albert Museum [in London] had been looking for one, too ... But they are impossible to find.”

In 2011, LACMA did the impossible, acquiring a museum-grade, real-deal zoot suit from 1940-42 at a vintage clothing auction in New Jersey. LACMA director Michael Govan told the Times that the zoot suit was as hard to acquire as some of the museum’s prized paintings.

The auction was a nail-biter, with the opening bid skyrocketing from $500 to the five figures in less than a minute. LACMA won’t say what it paid for the garment, but a news report from the time shows that the suit sold for $78,000 to “a large museum that aggressively outbid a second, eager museum contender.” 

The museum's "Unframed" blog has a nice piece from Takeda and curatorial assistant Clarissa M. Esguerra about the tense moments acquiring the suit: "The representative on the other end of the phone line could barely keep up with the pace of bidding. Finally, she said, 'Yes, it’s yours!' Our hard-fought winning bid for the zoot suit set a new auction record for twentieth-century menswear."

The flamboyant ensemble — pale ocher medium-weight wool emblazoned with dapper maroon stripes — will make its debut in the April exhibition "Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015."  

“The zoot suit is the first truly American fashion,” says Takeda. “And It was African Americans and immigrants — Filipinos, Chicanos — who took it on. The fact that it was voluminous has to do with the dances of the time. People were dancing and spinning aggressively.”

Despite their iconic nature, vintage zoot suits have been difficult to come by. The large amount of fabric they employed meant that many were likely taken apart to make other clothing when the fashion fell out of favor.

Others simply didn’t survive the politics of the era. In 1943, confrontations between white sailors and Mexican youth in Los Angeles culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots, with roving bands of sailors beating up zoot suiters and stripping them of their garments.

“Police would go after these kids with clubs with razor blades on the end,” says Takeda. “We have a supplementary photo of a kid wearing zoot suit pants that are in shreds.”

Nothing is known about the wearer of LACMA’s suit, acquired at a Newark estate sale for $20 before going to auction.

“He was a tall guy,” says Takeda. “I imagine that he must have worn it to dance clubs in Harlem. It’s an educated guess.”

“It’s definitely a great piece,” she adds. “Hopefully there are others that will come out. Maybe from East L.A.?”

"Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015" goes on view on April 10 at LACMA. 5905 Wilshire Blvd, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles, lacma.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

Feb. 10: This story was updated with additional material from an interview with Sharon Takeda. 

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