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“Leurs cheveux brillantinés descendent sur la nuque et sont longs et remontés en frisottant sur le devant : encore un pied de nez à un décret de 1942 obligeant la récupération des cheveux dans les salons de coiffure pour en faire des pantoufles! [d’Aubervilliers) – untidy hair down the nec…”
Part 1 The origins of the Edwardian style in late 1940s London
It has often enough been written that the teddy boys were a wholly British phenomenon and that their sartorial style was influenced by the revival of an Edwardian style after World War II – whence the name. The style as developed by the teddy boys owed something to the previously existing black-marketeer spiv style (itself inspired by American zoot suits styles) and would – as the 50s progressed – develop in the direction of American western styles popular in the cinemas of the time.
Brian Rushgrove((Fashionable, Foolish or Vicious 2003: 17)) informs us that the Edwardian look itself was sprung on the public by the Saville Row tailors of London in the summer of 1948, a high-class look which percolated down to the factory-tailoring which by the time of the Festival of Britain in 1951 was influencing popular male style. As we know, it was soon to be monopolised by youth (both trendy and delinquent variants) and other wearers shunned it.
The Edwardian look initially took hold among those who frequented the yuppie ‘male scene’ around Chelsea and was especially favoured by Guardsmen when donning their civvy gear. The Guardsmen, apparently, had long had form in this kind of environment, as *Two Types informs us on the Fedora Lounge forum in 2009:
The Guards were traditionally associated with what you refer to as ‘the male scene’ in London. During the late 1930s police investigations discovered that young guardsmen were very ‘active’ in central London’s parks. Indeed, there is a document in the National Archives at Kew showing that the police even uncovered the existence of ‘price lists’ for favours administered within the Guards barracks in London. If I remember rightly, the price rates depended on the age of those giving the favours (i.e. how young and ‘fresh faced’ they were).
Now, don’t ask me more because I wasn’t there and don’t know any more about the Guardsmen! Whether the revival of the Edwardian style originated with them or rather more generally within London’s male homosexual circles is a moot point. In his blog, Cory Gross points out that the:
The Edwardian look became most popular amongst Guardsmen, bankers and other members of the financial elite, and London’s gay establishment.((http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.ie/2012/07/edwardian-fashion-of-space-age.html))
Nevertheless we are still left with a question: did the tailors come up with the Edwardian suit revival in 1948 or was it already there in the London male homosexual scene? I would hazard a guess that it had already developed in those circles before its adoption by the London tailors, although that remains to be proved. I’d also hazard a guess that the many wealthy individuals who were part of the ‘scene’ had more time to devote to their interests than did the great majority of the British population at the time, including the Guardsmen, and are more likely to have been the innovators.
If so, there is an enticing trail that leads further back into the roots of Teddy Boy style which must follow the origin of the adoption of the Edwardian sartorial style of the late 1940s in London, not only on the homosexual scene but in the yuppie circles of the time as personified by the playboy millionaire, tailor and fashionista Bunny Roger.
Part 2 The zazous, French precursors of the teds
The zazou was a French youth subculture phenomenon which characterised the era running from the late 1930s (1937 first attestation of the term((CNRTL s.v. zazou URL: http://cnrtl.fr/etymologie/zazoue))) into the late 1940s. They flourished during the war and the German occupation and despite persecution by the authorities continued after the war. My mother, then a young girl growing up in Angers, a city in the Loire valley, remembers people criticising a man because he was known by reputation as a zazou.
Readers will guess that I’m soon going to illustrate the many unexpected similarities of the zazous with teddy boys, but before I do that I would like to call attention to an edition of the photo-reportage magazine Paris Match entitled ‘Les Teddy Boys’ dating to July 02 1955 which shows that the teddy boys were indeed perceived by those French who came across them as the equivalent of the zazous. Indeed, the article explicitly describes them as ‘Les zazous anglais’ (‘The English zazous’).
I have translated a few sections:
The meeting places of the new English zazous are the Saturday night dance halls. They don’t frequent bars and don’t have a Saint-Germain-des-Prés [i.e. one of the preferred haunts of the Parisian Zazous]. Their garb was created by an important tailor for the upper classes. But the upper classes snubbed it. Six months later the Teddy Boys adopted it.
By their dandy style they belong not only to the ridiculous tabloid tittle-tattle, but also to tragic news items. [i.e. violence and anti-social behaviour] ((“Les lieux de réunion des nouveaux zazous anglais sont les dancings du samedi soir. Ils ne fréquentent pas les bars et n’ont pas de Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Leur tenue à été créée par un grand tailleur à l’intention de la gentry. Mais celle-ci la boude. Six mois plus tard les Teddy Boys l’adoptèrent. / Ils appartiennent à l’actualité comique par leur style d’incroyables, mais aussi à l’actualité tragique des faits divers.”))
Their favourite dance is “le be-bop” (this deserves reflection)
Incidentally, I have also come across an illustrated French guidebook to Britain dating from 1960 which showed a picture of a teddy boy which was evidently then considered a sight typical of London in the same way as postcards for many years in the 1980s showed punk-spotting as a selling-point for London as a tourist destination. Foolishly, I didn’t buy the book at the time and lost a chance to acquire a bit of history.
Part 3 Origin of zazou
So, having established that French observers of the British teddy boys in the 1950s likened them to their own zazous it behoves us to try and find out what where these French cousins and precursors of the teddy boys.
Basically, zazous was a nickname that began to be given to fans of swing music in late 1930s Paris. They had a definite sartorial style by which they could be recognised but, before I turn my attention to this aspect of their existence in Part 4, I would like here to discuss their origin and the musical connection to swing. In France such fans of frenetic jazz were called Les Swings or slightly pejoratively Les Petits Swings and likewise in the major cities of Germany Germany and Austria they were known as Die Swings or Die Swingjugend (‘The Swing Youth’) where swing was banned at dance-halls by many of the local authorities (this was the era of the Nazis and the first bans seem to have occurred in 1937 and become commoner after 1939). The bans in Germany were probably never completely enforced and this is better understood by the story I once read of an SS man’s autobiography where he said the trainee SS men in a pre-war Silesian mountain camp enjoyed dancing ‘the Lambeth walk’ … Oy!!!! (The ‘Lambeth walk’ is mentioned in the French press of 1942 alongside other ‘decadent’ dance-styles such as jazz and rumba ((Loiseau: 119))).
It seems then that swing music had taken such a hold on a section of Parisian by 1937 that a nickname arose: zazou. The terms derives from the words of a 1933 hit of Cab Calloway’s: ‘zaz zuh zaz’ in which the nonsense scat was presented as “a very entrancing phrase” which had “a very peculiar swing”.
The chorus was in a very typical Cab Calloway vein:
Zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zaz
Zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zay
Zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zaz
Zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zay
Calloway and his Cotton Club Orchestra were not only one of the most popular black American jazz bands of the 1930s but also played all over western Europe during the ambitious and influential European tour of 1934 which clocked in London, Manchester, Amsterdam, The Hague, Antwerp, Brussels and Paris.
The tour (only two nights played in Paris) and his recordings were enough to inspire the French to develop their own home-produced swing and a very particular youth subculture associated with swing, the zazous (a term first attested in 1937).
In 1938 a song by Johnny Hess (1911–83), a French-speaking Swiss singer established in Paris, firmly ensconced the connection between zazou and the music in the public’s mind in his song ‘je suis swing’ (‘I am swing’) in which the words – composed by André Hornez – went as follows (in translation):
negro music and hot jazz, are already old machines
today to be in the know one must be swing
swing is not an illness, swing is not a melody
but as soon as it has pleased you, it takes a hold and doesn’t let go
I am swing, I am swing, zazou, zazou, zazou, zazou-zay
I am swing, I am swing, zazou, zazou, zazou, zazou-zay, it’s mad how it can turn me on
when I sing a song of love, I season it with loads of minor effects
I am swing, I am swing, zazou, zazou, I’m having fun like crazy
There’s not much to it, even in the original, but the message was clear swing was associated with fun, light-heartedness and with whatever it meant … ‘zazou’! … the opposite of a song that meant to say something profound. philosophical and wise which is near enough the esthetics of rock’n’roll.
Swing and the zazous seem to have been eclipsed in a public life for a while as war was declared with Germany in 1939 and France was conquered in the Spring of 1940, but by 1941 as the French buckled down to the Nazi occupation of their country both seemed to a comeback, all the while leading a healthy life, and to have, if anything grown in extent. This also had something to do with the fact that both the German military and security authorities and the collaborating French administration of Vichy, also authoritarian and paternalistic, frowned energetically against swing and zazous as examples of cultural decadence, negro/American/Jewish/British/Gaullist influence (take your pick) which has left us with a rich seam of documentary evidence, not least from the collaborationist press which castigated the zazous.
To cut a long story short, between 1941 and 1944, the zazous were denounced, vilified and were the subject of oppressive measures by the authorities, not least the far-right French extremists who dreamt of a fascist Europe alongside the master race. The zazous were not simply a reaction against fascism, they tended to be staunchly apolitical and lukewarm patriots and preferred living for today’s pleasures rather than for tomorrow’s uncertain outcomes and so they were not particularly well esteemed by the more patriotic majority of the French population which held strident anti-German sentiments. Paris was the greatest European metropolis which fell under Nazi control during the dark days of the German occupation of Europe, it was also the greatest film producer in Europe during that period (220 films produced ((Loiseau: 110))), thus for the initial years of the occupation had a lively cultural scene, and it was this cosmopolitan scene which the zazous inhabited.
After the war, the zazous seem not to have been heard of again as be-bop became the fashionable jazz in post-war Paris. Nevertheless, my mother, a young girl growing up in the provincial city of Angers in the late 1940s remembers well her older sister having been warned off a particular young man, the reason being that he was considered a bit of a ‘zazou’. The zazous certainly lived long enough in living memory for Frenchmen to naturally equate them with the teddy boys which appeared in London in the early 1950s (as we saw in Part 2, above).
The following clip featuring Johnny Hess’s other hit ‘ils sont zazous!’ is preceded by footage of one of the wartime French fascist leaders, Jacques Doriot, at one of his rallies, justifying the French volunteers who fought with the Germans on the Eastern Front. He contrasts this Légion des Volontaires Français with … wait for it … the decadence of the zazous. You can hear him say, to sustained applause (at 0:44 on the clip):
To be 20 years of age. To live through the most grandiose era of human history and to act like a zazou, physically and morally. Such decadence, such dissipation.((“Avoir 20 ans. Vivre à l’époque la plus grandiose de l’histoire humaine et faire le zazou, physiquement et moralement. Quelle décrépitude et quelle déchéance.”))
The reaction of the French authorities, either through their officers or through letting paramilitary fascist groups loose was to send some zazous to labour camps, to humiliate them publicly by tearing their clothes or shaving their hair in public. These propaganda cartoons from the French collaborationist press are clear enough in their depictions:
In 1941 zazous were to be found hanging around Parisian cafés, or rather sitting outside on the pavement on the cafés’ terrasses watching the world go by. Their two centres were around the snobbish Champs-Élysées (8th Arrondissement) north of the Seine and the student area of the Latin Quarter near the Sorbonne around Boulevard Saint-Michel (6th Arrondissement), south of the Seine. The Pam-Pam and the Colisée (‘Coliseum’) cafés were their preferred haunts around the Champs-Élysées, and the Capoulade and the Dupont-Latin around the “Boul’Mich’” (Boulevard Saint Michel).((Loiseau: 80)) There seems to have been a marked difference of class between the zazous of the two areas – scornful upper-class rich kids in the former and insubordinate middle-class students in the latter – but when the authorities began to crack down they did not draw a distinction and they were characterised as “little runts heaving with money” in the words of a former zazou.((Loiseau: 131)) Even more than the Pam-Pam, the Colisée was where zazous were even more refined and where they mixed with other wealthy citizens, not least successful black marketeers, the kind of people who through inherited wealth or flourishing business activities were well placed to avoid some of the constraints of the times.((Loiseau: 132–33)) These zazous were sometimes called “zazous de salon” ((Loiseau: 136)) which translates as “parlour zazous” and reminds us of our own term ‘plastic teds’.
There were a number of popular French songs of the time which directly undertook the subject of the zazou starting with Johnny Hess’s above-mentioned 1938 ‘je suis swing’ (he tried a reprise with ‘je suis jitterbug’ (‘I am jitterbug’) in July 1945) and his ‘ils sont zazous’ Johnny Hess (with Maurice Martelier) 1942 Jan (reprised by Pierre Mingand in Dec 1942). Other examples are Charles Trenet’s 1942 ‘la poule zazou’ (‘the zazou hen’ [poule ‘hen’ also commonly means ‘tart’]) and Andrex’s 1944 ‘y’a des zazous’ (‘there are zazous’). The lyrics of these songs were constrained by having to tread a fine line between appearing to approve zazou behaviour and to condemn them – the solution was to claim in an ever so gentle mocking way that zazous were mad. Judge for yourself from Hess’s January 1942 hit ‘ils sont zazous!’ (‘they are zazous!’) – which starts at 1:00 on the clip above – and which is a good place to appreciate the zazou sartorial style as well as their public conduct (in translation):
hair all frizzled up, an 18-foot collar: “ah, they’re zazous!”
a finger like this in the air, a jacket trailing on the ground: “ah, they’re zazous!”
they have trousers with an incredible cut / which reaches a little above the knee
and whether it rains or the wind blows they have an brolly / big sunglasses and most especially
they adopt a posture of disgust, all those little crackpots: “ah, they’re zazous!”
one day an upstanding solicitor / coming from the countryside
came [to Paris] to deal with weighty business affairs / of inheritances and wills.
he had a very elegant appearance / but – since the fashions of today
have more or less the same look / as those of 1900 –
two young zazous cried when they saw him: “ah, he’s so zazou!”
the upstanding solicitor had a jacket trailing on the floor: “ah, he’s so zazou!”
that very worthy solicitor did not suspect / that he was quite such a zazou /
because all his clothes had passed down to him from his grandfather; the collar, the jacket, and all …
he was surprised to find himself noticed / by all the zazous
once home the solicitor astonished all his friends,
he now only walked with his finger in the air. but soon it was much worse,
this disease took hold of his daughter, his wife, his employee, his mutt,
finally all the family, / everyone became zazou.
in the neighbourhood when they walked about, they were taken for crazies
on seeing them pass by, upstanding folk cried out: “Look, here are the zazous !”
after long deliberations the doctor checking up concluded: “but they’re zazous!
it’s a disease which is quite specific, / soon nothing will show
with a good cure of our grandmothers’ polka” / then, looking at himself he said “well well!”
my hair is all frizzled up, my collar 18-feet high: “but, I’m a zazou!”
just like the solicitor my jacket trails on the ground: “so then I’m a zazou!”
“and if it is only a sartorial question / I am the most zazou of us all
because my frock coat trails the ground / I see but one remedy: let’s cut everything!”
the doctor understood / that that’s where to locate the soul | of all zazous!
The best single source concerning the zazous is a slightly idiosyncratic work written by Jean-Claude Loiseau entitled Les Zazous (Paris: Le Sagittaire) dating from 1977.
Part 4 The zazous’ sartorial style
It is better to start with a composite picture of how zazous were perceived to dress and behave during their heyday as a ‘public menace’ in the years 1941–44 as the French population resigned themselves to the German occupation and the authoritarian regime of Vichy (women also had a distinctive style, but here I’ll be focusing on the male side). The Vichy regime, under Marshall Pétain ran the civilian side of government under the Germans with whom they had agreed to collaborate. It was a paternalistic undemocratic fascistic government who’s averred aim of Révolution nationale aiming to renew the strength and honour of France (alongside the Germans) placed emphasis on French youth to make up for the feebleness which had led France to defeat in 1940. It is in these circumstances that the zazous appeared as a social menace to ‘good order’ associated with the jazz and swing craze which grabbed Parisians at the end of a depressing year in which northern France had been conquered by the enemy (the membership of the Parisian Hot Club de France – a jazz organisation – had jumped from 350 in mid-1939 to 5,000 by early 1941).((Loiseau: 32)) Under the name swing, this type of music soon became the fashion and as it was picked up by established singing stars it was adulterated into an ersatz version that hadn’t much to do with the jazz purists of the Hot Club de France.((Loiseau: 172–73)) In January 1942, the far-right collaborationist newspaper Je suis partout noted: “Despite the 100,000 [Frenchmen] killed in this war, despite hundreds of thousands of prisoners still in captivity [in Germany], whilst France, by prudishness, has forbidden balls, they dance.” The zazous listened to American jazz in their own homes, in the cellars of cafés such as the Dupont-Latin and in the nearby record shop (a common attempt to distance the music from the official enemy).((Loiseau: 96))
The zazous, Loiseau tells us, generally, were aged between 18–25, and became zazous during this period. Generally, they were not the working class, but from moneyed backgrounds whether upper- or middle-class, with prospects.((Loiseau: 203)) A man who in his own words was “almost a zazou” at the time confided to Loiseau:
Becoming a zazou, in my city of Bordeaux, was to enter a network of slighty odd people, who on the whole liked the music I liked and got together to listen to records which I could only dream of buying. That is all I needed, money! To buy oneself shoes with triple leather soles at the end of 1942, believe me, was not the kind of purchase the son of an unimportant official, as I was, could afford.((Loiseau: 203))
This material ease of many zazous explains some of the popular dislike shown them by the general public.((Loiseau: 203))
As to the zazous’ sartorial style, there is no better place to start than with Johnny Hess’s 1942 hit ‘they are zazous!’ (given in Part 3 above). According to the song, full of hyperbole, the zazou is clothed in:
– a jacket “trailing on the ground”;
– an “18-foot” collar;
– trousers with “an incredible cut which reaches a little above the knee”.
This get up is then compared to that of an old-fashioned country solicitor who sported an elegant sartorial style dating to 1900 since his clothes (frock-coat, collar etc) had been passed down to him from his grandfather.
– ample jacket which flaps around their thighs;((1942 in Loiseau: 74)) Boris Vian wrote of a zazou with a sky blue jacket and trousers whose jackets fell on the thighs, three vents behind, seven gussets, two half-belts and one single button to close it;((1943 Loiseau: 211)) and especially, the zazou wears a long, large and waisted jacket (une veste longue, large ou cintrée) which falls on his thighs, an obvious provocation when all clothes and fabrics have been rationed since 1941.((provocation évidente alors que les vêtements et les articles textiles sont rationnés à partir de 1941 – d’Aubervilliers))
– brightly coloured check-patterned jackets – “The zazous are great fans of checked patterns”;((“Les zazous sont de grands amateurs de checked patterns” – d’Aubervilliers)) padded shoulder for women and drooping shoulders for men as well as a low voice for the former and a falsetto voice for the latter muddled the typical gender associations;((Buisson 2008: chap. 6)) “repulsive little zazous with voices of castrati”.((“de répugnants petits zazous à voix châtrés” 1944 in Loiseau: 196))
– long woollen sheepksin coat (canadienne);((1942 Loiseau: 74)) cardigan without lapels (veste de tricot sans revers).((1941 in d’Aubervilliers))
– narrow trousers;((1942 Loiseau: 74)) zazou trousers (pantalon zazou);((1941 in CNRTL s.v. zazou)) “The boys wear short narrow trousers which stop at the ankle.”;((“Les garçons portent des pantalons étroits et courts qui s’arrêtent à la cheville.” – d’Aubervilliers)) “Those little pubescent boys with trousers too short and beautiful curls, those little girls with bare knees”;((“Ces petits garçons aux pantalons trop courts de l’âge ingrat et aux belles boucles, ces petites filles aux genoux nus” [1942 in CNRTL s.v. zazou])) trousers cut above the ankle but billowed above the knee; striped trousers (pantalon rayés);((1941 in d’Aubervilliers)) golf trousers forbidden by authorities 19 of May 1942.((Loiseau: 78))
– thick-soled shoes,((1941 Loiseau: 35)) shoes with soles too thick;((1941 in d’Aubervilliers)) big unpolished shoes;((1942 Loiseau: 74)) “they wear shoes with compensated soles”.((“Leurs pieds sont chaussés de souliers à semelle compensée” – d’Aubervilliers))
– high starched collars; soft collar held by a horizontal pin;((1942 Loiseau: 74)) “their neck is squeezed in a turned up shirt collar held by a tie-pin and adorned by a narrow tie”.((“leur cou est serré dans un col de chemise relevé et retenu par une épingle et orné d’une cravate étroite” – d’Aubervilliers))
– canvas (toile) and coarse worsted ties;((1942 Loiseau: 74))
– brightly coloured socks.((1942 in Loiseau: 207))
– frizzled their hair,((1942 Loiseau: 130, 136)) frizzled quiffs (toupets frisés);((Loiseau: 164)) frizzled mop of hair (tignasse frisée);((1943 in Loiseau: 211)) quiff hairstyle (coiffure ‘banane’);((Le Menn)) an undulating quiff (une mèche ondulée).((1942 in Le Menn))
– hair shining with salad oil because of lack of other oils;((1942 Loiseau: 74, 136)) Their brylcreemed hair (“cheveux brilliantine”) is long and falls on their nape and is brought up by frizzing the front, yet another two fingers to a decree from 1942 which obligated barbers to collect hair for making slippers!((Leurs cheveux brillantinés descendent sur la nuque et sont longs et remontés en frisottant sur le devant : encore un pied de nez à un décret de 1942 obligeant la récupération des cheveux dans les salons de coiffure pour en faire des pantoufles! [d’Aubervilliers)
– untidy hair down the neck intentionally kept in disorder;((1941 Loiseau: 35; 1942 Loiseau: 74)) long hair “à la mode d’Oxford”.((Loiseau))
– Clark Gable ((1941 in d’Aubervilliers)) or Django Reinhardt moustache.((Loiseau: 78))
– brolly closed whatever the weather;((1942 Loiseau: 75)) in the Latin Quarter the ‘chamberlain’ umbrella (inspired by the umbrella which British prime-minister Neville Chamberlain was supposed to have held during the Munich negotiations with Hitler in 1938;((Loiseau: 97)) these brollys were considered English style and there was also an umbrella named “américain”;((1940 in Loiseau: 14)) “the umbrella is de rigueur, but whether it rains or no it remains obdurately closed!”;((“le parapluie est de rigueur. Mais qu’il pleuve ou non, il reste obstinément fermé!” (d’Aubervilliers))) love to walk in puddles.((1942 Loiseau: 75))
– sunglasses, indoors and whatever the weather.
– zazous added loads of knick-knacks, watch-chains, tie-pins to ‘protest’ against the drabness of wartime clothing.((Loiseau: 120))
– syncopated gait (“démarche syncopée”).((1941 Loiseau: 35; 1941 in d’Aubervilliers))
– keep rhythm to the music with their index finger held high;((1941 in Loiseau: 40, 98)) a zazou dancing at a party with his girlfriend “he let go a strident ‘Yeah!’, brandished his index finger, step back three steps in order to immediately step forward four”;((il poussait un ‘Yeah!’ strident, agitait l’index, reculait de trois pas pour avancer aussitôt de quatre” (Boris Vian 1946 Vercoquin et le plancton in Le Menn)) which explains their depiction as walking around with the index finger held high;
– drink pomegranate-syrup-beer (bière grenadine) cocktail, supposedly invented at the Pam-Pam;((Loiseau: 76, 128)) fruit juices apparently favoured by zazous.((Loiseau: 128))
– eat raw carrots.((Loiseau: 74))
– English cigarettes highly sought and still available in 1942.((Loiseau: 97))
The posh Champs-Élysées zazous took more care in being elegant and cleaner, wore sunglasses and were more exhibitionist in the windows of cafés.((Loiseau: 129–30)) They also had slightly longer jackets and hair slightly more frizzled.((Loiseau: 129))
A well-informed article by Robert Baschet in the collaborationist L’Illustration of the 28th March 1942((www.paperblog.fr/5142727/le-zazou-le-swing-et-le-da-dou-da-dou)) describes the zazous in the following way after pointing out that the university classes of the Latin Quarter empty at 5 pm and the students immediately go to the nearby cafés to relax and socialise. And whilst Baschet commends most of the students in their enthusiasm for the serious tasks facing the creation of a ‘New France’ in line with Vichy policies he notes that:
Nevertheless there exists a particular category of students who, with a clearly different look and way of talking, constitute to a certain extent a tribe set apart having its own habits, customs to the point of having its own morals … Around the tables they are easily recognised ; the men wear ample jackets which flaps around their thighs, narrow pleated trousers above large unpolished shoes and a canvas or worsted tie ; but as this is not enough to distinguish them from so many other Parisians, they glaze their hair with salad oil, in the absence of greasy substances, their hair a little too long descending a flexible collar held by the front by a horizontal pin. This costume is nearly always complemented by a canadienne (a waterproof light-brown leather jacket with dark woollen lining) from which they part only with misgiving and which they intentionally keep wet, for they are only themselves in the rain: obeying, in this matter, one of their most cherished rites to drag their feet in pleasure in water, messing up their trousers, exposing their tufty and greasy hair to showers … / Thus are the true swing people of the Latin Quarter, those who are named ‘zazou’ in derision and who are the origin of the ‘movement’ whose style was thereafter distorted. Because there now exists another variant of these new dandys, a superficial imitation, much more elegant and less ‘pure’ who reside at the Champs-Élysées. These swings still frequent the barber and wear well-cut trousers, but content themselves in being extras without attempting to seek the spirit of the ‘movement’. Yet others, who are no longer in the flower of their youth, attempt to give the illusion of eternal spring by imitating the students; but these mature men, who have not the excuse of infantilism, need the somewhat artificial atmosphere of the night clubs and a HQ in a Montmartre establishment … ((Il existe cependant une catégorie d’étudiants qui, d’allure et de langage nettement différents, constituent en quelque sorte une tribu à part, ayant ses moeurs, ses coutumes et jusqu’à sa morale … Autour des tables, on les reconnaît aisément ; les hommes portent un ample veston qui leur bat les cuisses, des pantalons étroits froncés sur de gros souliers non cirés et une cravate de toile ou de laine grossière ; mais comme cela ne suffirait pas à les distinguer de tant d’autres Parisiens, ils lustrent à l’huile de salade, faute de matières grasses, leurs cheveux un peu trop longs, qui descendent à la rencontre d’un col souple maintenu sur le devant par une épingle transversale. Cette tenue est presque toujours complétée par une canadienne dont ils ne se séparent qu’à regret et qu’ils gardent volontiers mouillée. Car ils ne sont vraiment eux-mêmes que sous la pluie : obéissant en cela à l’un des rites qui leur sont chers, ils traînent avec délices leurs pieds dans l’eau, crottent leur pantalon, exposent aux averses leurs cheveux touffus et gras…. / … Tels sont les vrais gens swings du Quartier Latin, ceux que l’on appelle par dérision les ‘zazou’ et qui sont à l’origine de ‘mouvement’ dont le style fut par la suite déformé. Car il existe maintenant une autre variété de ces dandys nouveaux ; une imitation superficielle, beaucoup plus élégante et moins ‘pure’, qui siège aux Champs-Elysées ; ces swings-là vont encore chez le coiffeur, portent des pantalons bien coupés, mais se contentent d’un rôle de figurants sans en rechercher l’esprit. D’autres enfin, qui ne sont plus de première jeunesse, croient donner l’illusion de l’éternel printemps en imitant les étudiants ; mais à ces hommes mûrs, qui n’ont pas l’excuse de la puérilité, il faut l’atmosphère un peu frelatée des boîtes de nuit et un quartier général dans un établissement de Montmartre …))
In retrospect, Jean-Louis Bory, a former zazou, could state that:
For me zazouism was a form of dandyism; the nineteenth-century dandy reacted against the moralising [of the time] with provocations against the established order. There was that in our attitude, even if the zazous whom I regularly met on a daily basis at the Latin Quarter did not perceive the line of descent as such.((Loiseau: 115))
Part 5 The zazous’ attitudes and behaviour
The zazous were not only a sartorial style but also an attitudinal and aspirational fashion. One was an attitude of contestation against the established order through inertia to which was added jokes about the Vichy regime’s blunders.((Loiseau: 78, 90–92, 203–04)) They had to avoid acts which the Germans would have taken seriously which led them in the direction of absurdity and ridicule.((Loiseau: 95)) Their easy-going attitude to the burning political questions of the day infuriated the most extreme collaborationists.
One former zazou explained to Loiseau why he became a zazou:
I think I got my first long jacket during 1942 … Come to think of it, I think it was the collaborationist press that motivated me. By dint of reading about “those young morons who are the misfortune of France” I wanted to get to know them. At the Latin Quarter where I was a law student I met a few. Quite friendly although I wouldn’t say that for every zazou; some were unbearable who despised everything and everyone, including run of the mill people, who were too stupid according to them … In short, I joined a little group of friends. We weren’t committed zazous! We didn’t form a secret society or what else. It was both much simpler and more relaxed than that. Ok, we had a ‘uniform’, but what brought us together first of all was a state of mind. The spirit of contradiction. We could not accept the ‘Work-Family-Homeland’ (Travail-Famille-Patrie) which was forced upon the French. We’d react to the situation through absurdity.((Loiseau: 93–94))
This zazou absurdity realised itself in provocative acts of criticism of the Vichy politics of the hour (situationists before the time) as they organised monômes (a mixture of student rag procession and demonstration) in which a number of them marched in Indian file each with their hands upon the preceding zazou’s shoulders chanting rhymed provocations until the ‘conga’ sometimes reached a hundred persons. At the first sight of a police officer or German uniform they would scarper, aware that they would not get away lightly. Some ‘demonstrated’ on the Champs-Élysées, with a fishing rod in each hand: ‘two fishing rods’ in French is “deux gaules” and in this way they broke a taboo by referring to the General De Gaulle and the Free French still fighting the Germans from overseas.((d’Aubervilliers)) Notwithstanding this and other examples, the zazous seem to have been insubordinate by nature and apolitical rather than motivated by patriotic ideals and this was one reason the Resistance did not warm to them either.
The Champs-Élysées zazous were more upper class and more snobbish than their Latin Quarter counterparts and affected an off-handedness which the others didn’t.((Loiseau: 129)) Some affected to yawn incessantly.((Loiseau: 211)) The snobbish attitude to the rest of the population explains a contemporary report that they adopted “a slightly superior and Oxford posture”,((“un petit air supérieur et oxfordien” (Loiseau: 78))) “a haughty disdainfulness”,((1943 in Loiseau: 213)) which explains their main attribute according to Hess’s hit ‘they are zazous!’ was:
“most especially they adopt a posture of disgust”
There was, apparently, a zazou ‘potlatch’ (a North-American Indian custom) in which the host at a surprise-party to emphasise their adherence to absurdity and subversion would break the furniture and the tableware.((Loiseau: 101))
In June 1942, the far-right collaborationist newspaper La Gerbe connected the music of zazous with a host of degenerating effects on France: “Also we have all the trouble in the world to eliminate the toxin of Americanism. It has been adopted into our habits, has impregnated our civilisation. We owe to it our frenetic restlessness, our mistakes in taste and behaviour: the corruption of our critical sense = americanism; the vertical freefall of our feeling of family = americanism; the insanity of negro jazz and of swing, infection of our young people by cocktail-parties = americanism.”((Loiseau: 103))
Another newspaper report of the time talked of young people as “fanaticised by Judeo-American cinema” and “all admirers and imitators of the Far West”.((Loiseau: 105))
The German authorities banned not only all Anglo-Saxon films but also all films produced before 1938 and tried to flood the market with German productions and to control French films by producing them through the well-funded Continental Films.((Loiseau: 108)) The zazous’ favourite film was ‘La Pension Jonas’, directed by Pierre Caron, which came out in March 1942 was a film – banned for “imbecility” for a spell.((Loiseau: 111–12)) It related the adventures of Barnabé Tignol, a tramp, who decides to move in to a carcass of a whale displayed in a museum in Paris from where his adventures can begin. As for books, zazous favoured Anglo-Saxon authors who had been banned in block by the Germans.((Loiseau: 120–22))
The zazous’ flamboyant nonconformity is best judged alongside the aims of Hitler and his willing French collaborators to foster one leader, one political system and a uniform youth in a unified the ‘New Europe’; in this context the ruling regimes of the Occupation sought to put a uniform – both physically and morally – on French youth lest they become degenerate and disaffected.((Loiseau: 119–20))
Part 6 The end of the zazous
As the German Occupation became more oppressive during 1942 the French authorities began to crack down on the zazous. As early as late 1940, some supporters of the Vichy regime had hinted at obligatory ‘Youth Centres’((Loiseau: 143)) and during the late spring and summer of 1942 the authorities began to act.((Loiseau: 145)) On the 25th of May of that year, all the French fascist youth movements were unified as the Jeunesses Populaires Françaises (the JPF) under the wing of the national-socialist Parti Populaire Français and its leader Jacques Doriot. After its inaugural meeting, with 5,000 participants, some 400 of them marched to the Latin Quarter chanting Maréchal nous voilà! (‘Field marshal here we are!’, a regime slogan) and Vive Pétain! Vive Doriot! and proceeded to show their intentions by beating up a few Jews and pulling out some frizzled locks of hair, but the inhabitants of the Boulevard Saint Michel fought back and threw café chairs at these fascist paramilitaries, managing to injure some of them, including the JPF leader Roger Vauquelin and 50 of them taken to the local nick by the police.((Loiseau: 154–55)) Casual beatings and ‘scalpings’ (more precisely forcible shavings) of zazous by JPF members followed from this ‘battle’ and the Parisian police – reminded by its superiors of its duty not to interfere with these fascist activities – would, in turn, round up around a hundred zazous, albeit to release them soon afterwards.((Loiseau: 156)) The Parti Populaire Français’s press reported actions by its militants and a footnote in one of them advertised: “P.S. Due to the delicate nature of the shearing operation we seek voluntary barbers. Address your letters to the headquarters of the JPF, 3, rue Cimarosa, Paris 16th Arrondissement.”((Loiseau: 158))
The crackdown on the zazous accompanied an even more sinister one. On the 29th of May of 1942, a decree had been signed by the Vichy government (which administered even the German-occupied zone in northern France) which made the wearing of a yellow star obligatory for all Jews by the beginning of June. In mid-July 1942 an operation to collect 12,000 Jews around Paris was mounted by the police with the all-too-willing assistance of the JPF members, they would soon be transiting to Auschwitz.((Loiseau: 158)) Some brave non-Jewish souls, in solidarity, decided also to wear yellow stars and they were promptly sent to an internment camp and were released a fortnight later. Among their number were a few zazous with long jackets and frizzled quiffs (toupets frisés) who had confectioned a yellow star identical to the official requirements except for a five-lettered word placed at the middle ‘SWING’ or ‘ZAZOU’.((Loiseau: 164)) And this is not an urban legend written after the fact; police reports found after the war included some of these confiscated yellow stars (not all necessarily having being confected zazous). Others had had placed ‘Auvergnat’ (a person from the Auvergne region in central France) or ‘Goï’ (the Hebrew name for non-Jews) or a Christian cross to show their disgust at racist discrimination.((URL: http://d-d.natanson.pagesperso-orange.fr/protestation.htm))
In this increasingly oppressive atmosphere, where the French authorities were looking to send unemployed men to work in Germany (bowing to Nazi pressure), a few zazous without a regular job decided to accept a ‘voluntary’ work scheme as farm labourers, a ‘return to the land’ which was one of the ideologies dear to Field-marshal Pétain.((Loiseau: 159–60)) By the autumn of 1942 the zazous were starting to be less prominent on Parisian streets as they kept their heads low, nevertheless they had not simply disappeared and since balls were strictly forbidden the zazous ingeniously discovered that ‘dance classes’ behind locked doors were not and music could be supplied by a piano or a record player.((Loiseau: 161–62)) Ironically enough, a film ‘Mademoiselle Swing’ would come out that very summer and was a roaring success despite having been banned some months previously by the German censors.((Loiseau: 169–72)) Nevertheless, the zazous who had been demonised by the collaborationist press from 1941 onwards declined after the assault by the JPF in 1942.((Loiseau: 180))
Despite the turning of the tide against the Nazis in late 1942 following Stalingrad, El Alamein and the allied landings in North Africa, the German Occupation became more brutal as the Unoccupied Zone of southern France was taken over by the Germans and Vichy disappeared. The Obligatory Work Service (Service Obligatoire de Travail, STO) instigated in February 1943 which meant forced labour in Germany led to the expansion of the French Resistance as young men did everything to avoid being ‘conscripted’. In Rouen, the regional prefect had actually singled out zazous for STO.((Loiseau: 192)) Worse than the JPF, the Vichy regime’s feared and hated paramilitary militia was established in January 1943, La Milice, these wore a blue uniform jacket and trousers, a brown shirt and a wide blue beret and were involved in repressive measures including summary executions of the state’s enemies. “The atmosphere had suddenly changed,” remembered a former zazou Jean-Louis Bory,((Loiseau: 186)) and although most ordinary Frenchmen – now realising the Germans were losing the war – were becoming more indulgent towards zazous, there was an end to the playful snubbing of the authorities since the imperative was now to avoid attention of the growing power of the collaborationist fascists who had become emboldened in their attacks on zazouism [Loiseau: 187]. “The time for foolery was over, the serious stuff was beginning” quotes Loiseau((Loiseau: 187)) and many zazous joined the Resistance at this time.((Loiseau: 190)) Johnny Hess noted that the special atmosphere was disappearing in the spring of 1943 and that the youth which attended his concerts were more reserved((Loiseau: 191)) where hitherto many would throw paper planes and utter Sioux war cries.((1941 Loiseau: 36))
The last ‘zazous’ of the Occupation years of 1943 and 1944 were more or less travesties, to be found in theatres as actors and in music halls as singers such as the soon-to-be-famous Yves Montand who on stage wore a check-shirt and sang cowboy songs.((Loiseau: 195)) The tone of the songs which were given airplay renewed the equation of zazous with crackpots as in these verses from ‘y’a des zazous (dans mon quartier)’ (‘there are zazous (on my patch)’) as sung by Andrex aka Raymond Vincy in 1944:
up till now on earth a man could be
white or black, or red, or yellow and that was it
but another breed is making an appearance
it’s the zazous! it’s the zazous!
a detachable collar which goes up to the tonsils
with a jacket which reaches down to the knees
the hair cut down to the spine
that’s the zazou, that’s the zazou
there are zazous on my patch
I am already halfway there
your turn will come one of these days
you’ll be zazous like them
since the zazou is contagious
it begins with a trembling
which suddenly takes a hold of you
and then you begin to scream
wah-dah-lah dee-doo-lah dee-doo-lah, wah-wah
if your grocer tells you: I’ve got some gruyère cheese
unfortunately only holes remain,
don’t suppose he’s round the bend:
he’s a zazou! he’s a zazou!
to her future son-in-law our janitor said:
you see, my daughter is a gem
it’s better than if she was a virgin
she’s a zazou! she’s a zazou!
when paying his debt to society
in front of the guillotine Gégéne said: I couldn’t care less
I lost my head a long time ago
I am a zazou! I am a zazou!
there are zazous on my patch
I am already halfway there
and in my turn one of these days
they’ll come and collect me
to an asylum of lunatics
we’ll find ourselves between us zazous
and it’s mad how much we’ll laugh
when in the shower we will sing
wah-dah-lah dee-doo-lah dee-doo-lah, wah-wah
Whereas the zazous had enjoyed a flagrant public presence during the initial period of the Occupation, they increasingly retired from public appearance and when “surprise-parties” would be announced they were held behind closed curtains ((Loiseau: 97–98)) – the description of such a zazou party, held in his parents’ house in the suburb of Ville-d’Avray, in 1943 is given of one of which is given by Boris Vian. ((Loiseau: 211–13)) Circumstances so restricted the zazous from expressing themselves that their scene withered until by 1945 when the war was over the zazou generation had virtually disappeared and a new generation learnt to appreciate jazz and swing, not from them but, anew from the American troops who had help liberate France. The zazou continued to be used pejoratively as is indicated by Loiseau who – on the bumph of his 1977 book – wrote:
Zazou! A word which is still employed today as an insult whilst almost no-one knows what it really means.
Part 7 The zazous and the teds: what relationship?
The number of similarities between the zazous and the teds is striking: (1) a particularly long jacket (albeit waisted with zazous); (2) a colourful jacket (relatively so with 50s teds and with a chequered pattern with zazous); (3) a narrow trousers which stopped just above the ankle to show off brightly-coloured socks; (4) chunky platformed shoes (albeit extra leather soles with zazous); (5) a greased, slightly long hair – by present standards – falling on nape; (6) a quiff (combed with teds, frizzled with zazous); (7) sunglasses when not in bright sunlight; (8) showy knick-knacks such as watch-chains (both derived from 1930s American zoot styles); (9) a particular gait when walking (described as syncopated for zazous); (10) a love of rhythmic American music (swing jazz for zazous, rock’n’roll for teds).
There are differences however, I need only mention the peculiarities of the zazous: the tall starched collar held by a pin, the brollys, the wearing of gloves, thin Clark Gable moustaches, peculiarities such as a propensity for fruit juices. The fact that zazous are sometimes found wearing hats – something which teds never did, apart from an occasional blue cap – may have to do with a general western dress evolution which saw young people abandon headwear as the century progressed, this was never mentioned as pertaining to the zazou style. More importantly, the difference between the zazous and the teds were that the former were middle class and upper class (especially those of the Champs-Élysées as we saw) whereas the teds were firmly working class in their make-up. The French working class would have found it difficult to avoid scraping an existence in the tightened economic situation France found itself in 1940 with the German Occupation. Only the youth of the more financially-independent classes could afford the luxury of becoming a zazou in these times and this explains the general dislike in which they were held by many in France whether on the Collaborationist or Resistance side and goes a long way to explain why the Liberation of France did not lead to a return of the zazou style.
I know of no direct link between the zazou style and the ted style which – as we all know started as an Edwardian look. One similarity, which may be coincidental – but which is not derived from the ample American zoot suits – is that both these European sartorial movements laid great store on long jackets associated with bygone eras: the reign of King Edward VII in Britain and the generation of the solicitor’s grandfather in Johnny Hess’s song ‘ils sont zazous!’. In both cases it has been suggested that the inspiration for wearing pre-1914 clothes arose due to the fact that contemporary clothing material was rationed and uninspiring in which case the origin of both styles could be mere coincidences. Nevertheless, if one had the patience and tenacity to do it, it would be worth following up whether the Edwardian style favoured by the Chelsea guardsmen – many of whom dabbled in upper-class bohemian and homosexual circles around 1948 – were aware, and perhaps influenced in some ways by knowledge of the zazou style (the vacational, professional, commercial connections between Paris and London being so close in many walks of life this would hardly be surprising). But since the zazou sartorial style had never recovered in France after 1944, the chances for British people in the late 1940s of coming across zazous would have been slim indeed, unless they would have befriended former zazous. At the time of writing, the similarities between the zazous and the teddy boys looks more like a case of a heap of coincidences despite the French commentators of the 1950s having immediately recognised and identified the British teds as zazous.
Here’s a rendition of ‘y a des zazous’ from the 1990 opera comique titled simply ‘Zazou’ on the Michel Drucker television chat show.
POSTED May 2015.
Raoul d’Aubervilliers. ‘Zazou’. In Folie Vintage, URL: www.folievintage.fr/ annees40/zazou.
Buisson, Patrick. 2008. 1940–1945 Années érotiques: vol.1 Vichy ou les infortunes de la vertu. (Paris: Albin Michel).
Jordan, Matthew F. 2010. Le Jazz : Jazz and French Cultural Identity. good on zazous
Le Menn, Richard. ‘Le zazou, le swing et le da dou da dou’. URL: www.paperblog.fr/ 5142727/le-zazou-le-swing-et-le-da-dou-da-dou.