As a child, Harold C. Fox had studied to be a violinist. He got a job with a string group in a Chicago restaurant, but when the Century of Progress World's Fair came to town in 1933, the restaurant manager decided to change the sweet sound of Fox's combo to something brasher and brassier. Violins were out; trumpets were in.
Fox had never played the trumpet before, but this was the Depression and one could not afford to let a good job slip away.
"Somehow, I learned enough to fake my way through the season," Fox said. "I could only play in one key, A flat, because that was the key that required the least amount of fingering. I could play loud and I could play hot, but I never was a great musician."
When the fair closed, Fox got an offer to play with another combo, in New York. But by the time he arrived with his wife, Marie, and daughter, the deal had fallen through. Eventually, Fox managed to hitch up with a group called the Chick Winters Band. That opened some more doors, and Fox was invited to play his trumpet over New York`s WNEW radio station.
All the while, Fox was staying in touch with his father, who owned a woolen wholesaling house back in Chicago. His father would send him sample bolts of cloth, and Fox would design wild suits and band uniforms for his musician friends. Fox got the idea for the zoot suit in New York, but he didn't put it into production until 1939, when he moved back to Chicago to take over the family business with his brother, Aaron.
The zoot suit is the most innovative men’s garment of the twentieth century. Its knee-length jacket featured exaggerated padded shoulders, and the voluminous, high-waisted pants narrowed to a pegged ankle.
When the zoot suit emerged, it was a radical departure from typical men’s suits which had changed little in nearly a century. Fox sold the first zoot suit in Chicago in 1939.
Fox came up with the name "zoot suit" by borrowing from the distinctive street jargon of the day.
"It was cool in those days to talk in rhymes," Fox said. "In those days, the highest compliment you could pay someone or something was to say it was 'the end to end all ends.' I needed a word to rhyme with suit, so I used the letter of the alphabet that is the end to end all ends - 'Z' - and came up with ZOOT."
Fox even invented the most distinctive accessory to the zoot suit, the long, looping watch chain worn dangled from a trouser pocket.
"Our clothing store, Fox Brothers, had a commode you flushed by pulling on a chain," Fox recalled. "One day I flushed the toilet and the chain came off in my hand. For some reason, I took the chain with me when I went out into the showroom to phone a plumber." A commodious chain.
"Some cat was getting fitted for a zoot suit and he asked me if I had any accessories to go with the suit. Just on impulse, I hooked one end of the chain to his pants and put the other in his pocket. Bingo! He thought it was terrific, and pretty soon everybody who came in for a zoot suit had to have a chain."The zoot suit was one of Fox Brothers' first designs, and almost instantly the clothing house found itself among the avant-garde of American fashion. Fox came up with endless variations to the zoot suit, then branched out. He takes credit for popularizing padded shoulders, polka-dot shirts, be-bop berets (adorned with an upright toothpick), the cape-back Casablanca-style trench coat and something he calls the double-single-breasted jacket.
Word spread, and Harold Fox was soon the clothier of the stars. Dizzy Gillespie shopped there, and so did Charlie "Bird" Parker. Woody Herman and Stan Kenton were regulars. So were Sarah Vaughan, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat "King" Cole, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Earl Hines and Scatman Crothers.
Fox was the leader of the Jimmy Dale Orchestra when he took over the his family’s tailoring business in 1941. He reputedly traded suits for musical arrangements made by the popular jazz musicians who frequently played in Chicago and sported the extreme style. In addition to jazz musicians, urban blacks and Latinos were the primary wearers of the style.
Fox Brothers was also the clothier of choice for Chicago's leading mobsters and pimps.
The zoot suit was regarded as fashionable by some and as rebellious and unpatriotic by others. Its popularity coincided with World War II. Rationing during the war led to clothing restrictions for U.S. citizens. To some people, the copious amounts of fabric required to construct a zoot suit constituted open defiance of the American war effort.
In California, animosity between Latino “zoot suiters” and U.S. servicemen erupted in a fight known as the Zoot Suit Riots in June 1943. Racial prejudice lay beneath the servicemen’s outrage over the fashion, since the garment was worn primarily by blacks and Latinos.
The death knell came in Los Angeles after the war. Chicano zoot suiters were suspected in a series of muggings of sailors on shore leave. The sailors retaliated by beating up everyone they saw wearing a zoot suit. Los Angeles passed an ordinance banning the wearing of zoot suits within the city limits. "It was okay with me," Fox said of the end of the fad. "I was sick of zoots by that time anyway."
The initial fad of zoot suits was short lived, but the 1990s witnessed a resurgence in the popularity of swing dancing and the zoot suit. In an effort to embody the spirit of the 1940s, many dancers dressed in vintage clothing which helped bring back the zoot suit. Soon, the fad expanded to dressier occasions such as high school proms. Several tailors throughout the country began offering custom-made zoot suits. Fox, who died in 1996, continued wearing the fashion throughout his life and was buried in a lavender Zoot Suit.
The Fox Brothers Custom Tailors at 556 West Roosevelt Road, Chicago, Illinois, is still open for business.