Zazous – An Introduction to the Hip Rebels in Nazi Occupied France

Written by Jason Disley
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 It has to be said, that style culture is often systematic of a rebellion. A resistance to the environment you live in. A form of uniform that serves as differentiation from the accepted.

There have been many “movements” that have generated their identities. However, in this day and age differentiation has almost returned to what it was pre World War Two. It may not be the monochrome that is perceived of that time, nor is it every young person resembling the dress codes of their parents. But style tribes are not as visible as they once were. Especially at a time when socialising is curtailed by a pandemic. Great swathes of the population are dressing down for comfort or are wearing sportswear, and don’t have many places to go. Music also plays a part, and consequently, without clubs to go to, opportunity and identity is somewhat diminished.

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The teenager was supposedly born in the fifties according to popular culture. Think James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) It was a time when young people looked at life differently from their parents, and young people had money in their pockets, and so on. It is well documented and known all about. We are also aware of the many other subcultures that appeared through the postwar years of the twentieth century. From Trads to Beatniks, Rockers to Mods, Skins to Punks and Casuals, Goths and Emos, and so on.

What this article is about, is a lesser-known rebellious group during the war years in France. Their resistance and defiance is as Punk like and defiant as any well-known subculture. Music plays a part, as well as the political landscape and environment they were forced to live in. This is a brief look at the Zazous.

In 1940, the Nazis had control of France, An occupation that brought about many pockets of resistance. The Vichy regime, in collaboration with the Nazis, had fascist policies of its own and their vision had an ultra-conservative morality and subsequently started to use many laws against a youth that was feeling both restless, and disenchanted. (sounds familiar)

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In Paris, some of these young people started meeting in cafes, passing their time and mocking the politics of that time. This spontaneous development was a sharp response to the deadening effect on society by the Nazi-Vichy rule. As well as meeting in cafés they would also meet in cinemas, and some of the cellar clubs that could be found, and would hold spontaneous parties, usually arranged at very short notice. Much in the same way any group of young people would, given the chance.

These young people, who called themselves Zazous, were to be found throughout France, but most were concentrated in and around Paris. The two most important meeting places of the Zazous were the terrace of the Pam Pam cafe on the Champs Elysees and the Boul’Mich (the Boulevard Saint-Michel near the Sorbonne).

The Zazous of the Champs Elysees were said to come from a more middle-class background and were often older than the Zazous of the Latin Quarter. The Champs Elysees Zazous were easily recognisable on the terrace of the Pam Pam and took afternoon bike rides in the Bois de Boulogne. In the Latin Quarter, the Zazous would meet in the cellar clubs of Dupont-Latin or the Capoulade.

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Their style was what made them stand out. When you think of early style cultures in Britain, you would think of those of the 1950s known as Teddy Boys who would dress smartly in Edwardian jackets, and then the very early Modernists who liked listening to Jazz. Interestingly there seems to be some similarity in the style of the male Teddy boys to that of the male Zazous, that were to be found in Paris a decade earlier.

The male Zazou wore extra-large jackets, which hung down to their knees and which were fitted out with many pockets and often several half-belts. The amount of material used was a direct comment on Government decrees on the rationing of clothing material. Their trousers were narrow, gathered at the waist, and so were their ties, which were cotton or heavy wool. The shirt collars were high and kept in place by a horizontal pin. They liked thick-soled suede shoes, with white or brightly-colored socks. Their hairstyles were greased and long. It is also said that “In a parody of Englishness, they carried formal ‘Chamberlain’ umbrellas, always neatly furled, and never opened in spite of rainy weather.”

A fascist magazine even commented on the male Zazou: “Here is the specimen of Ultra Swing 1941: hair hanging down to the neck, teased up into an untidy quiff, little moustache a la Clark Gable... shoes with too-thick soles, syncopated walk.”

Female Zazous would wear their hair in curls falling down to their shoulders, or in braids. Blonde was the favourite colour, and they wore bright red lipstick, as well as sunglasses, which were also favoured by some male Zazous. They wore jackets with extremely wide shoulders and short, pleated skirts. Their stockings were striped or sometimes net, and they wore shoes with thick wooden soles.

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The Zazous were known for their attraction to jazz swing culture, music, and dress, which both the Germans and Vichy considered delinquent and unpatriotic. Previous work on this period has tended to ignore the Zazous, their participation in protests against the yellow star that Jewish people had to wear and by making their own yellow stars with the words ‘swing’ and ‘Zazou’, aligning themselves with those who were being persecuted, showed an even more dissident factor. The Zazous were making political statements of dissent within their oppressive environment. The Zazous and their participation in yellow star protests have helped complicate definitions used in discussing resistance, collaboration, and dissidence during the Second World War, but ultimately wearing such badges showed their rebellious spirit. Much in the way hippies in the Sixties would wear anti-war badges, and punks would wear pin badges with offensive slogans to shock and reinforce their anti-establishment identities.

As stated, the Zazous were directly inspired by jazz and swing music.

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A healthy, black jazz scene had sprung up in Montmartre during the period between the wars. Black Americans felt freer in Paris than they had back home, and the home-grown jazz scene was greatly reinforced by this emigration. Manouche Gypsy musicians like Django Reinhardt started playing swinging jazz music in the Paris clubs also.

A fine example of a post-war movie that reflects the popularity of Jazz in Paris is the wonderful film Paris Blues (1961) Although not covering the period of the Zazous, there is that sense of freedom that Black American musicians could enjoy, which they didn’t enjoy back in America. The Film stars, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poitier. It also features Louis Armstrong.

Getting back to the fascinating subculture of the Zazous.

The Zazous probably got their name from a line in a song – Zah Zuh Zah by the black jazz musician Cab Calloway, famous for his song Minnie the Moocher. Another French crooner popular with the Zazous, Johnny Hess, also had a song, Je Suis swing, in early 1942, in which he sung the lines “Za zou, za zou, za zou, za zou ze”. An associate of the Zazous, the anarchist singer/songwriter, jazz trumpeter, poet, and novelist Boris Vian was also extremely fond of using z words in his work.

It is said that the inspiration for the long draped jackets that the Zazous male wore was from the zoot suits seen to be worn by the likes of Cab Calloway.

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More could be said about this group of politically aware rebels, but this is merely an introduction, especially in terms of their lifestyle, and maybe searching out more information could give rise to an even more fascinating story, but what remains is the fact that apart from being symbolic of resistance in a time of widespread acquiescence, we should thank the Zazous, and their contemporaries across Nazi-occupied Europe, for providing a blueprint for all the continent’s youth counterculture movements of the 20th century. They were diverse, multicultural and not afraid to show it. Their little-known history is beginning to disappear and be consigned to articles like this one. Maybe one day a more comprehensive study can be made, although due to the amount of time that has passed, actually finding any original Zazous to speak to is nigh on impossible today. It would be fascinating to hear an oral history from these individuals who lived during this time. The fact that there is little in the way of literature attached to this group is a shame. For the Zazous to be consigned to just being a footnote in popular culture is in my mind a crime. It is right that they should be remembered and appreciated. They swung with verve and were not afraid to speak out against the oppressive dictatorial rule.

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Read 393 times Last modified on Monday, 22 February 2021 11:12
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Jason Disley

Jason Disley

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