Zazous: What punk culture meant in World War II France

Long hair, baggy suits, sunglasses, cynicism—deadly style

Quiff hairdo, pencil mustache, baggy suit? Yeah, the boy’s a zazou. (Albert Harlingue/Roger Viollet/Getty)

Why is it always the long-haired freaks who cause trouble?

Well, for the zazous, a rebellious youth subculture in World War II-era France, long hair was a literal form of protest. A 1942 government decree asked that all barbershops collect and donate hair to the war effort, to be manufactured into slippers and sweaters. The rebellious zazous refused, and grew their locks long.

During those years, the country’s conservative Vichy regime and its prime minister Philippe Pétain were collaborating with the occupying Nazis to impress strict morality laws on a youth population it deemed lazy and dissident.

In protest of Vichy ideology and enforced austerity, zazou followers challenged the image of an obedient, gender-normative, homogenized French citizenry. When the government imposed fabric rations, zazou men wore long, billowy jackets to their knees, gathered trousers, and tiny moustaches. They carried “Chamberlain” umbrellas even on sunny days, a parody of English style. Women wore jackets with wide shoulders, short skirts, bold lipstick, and bleached Hollywood-style hair.

1: Zazou woman in typical attire. 2: A young zazou playing records on his gramophone, during World War II. (Albert Harlingue/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Like their counterpart swing kids in Germany, zazous were fixtures in the jazz scene, which had originated in the African-American community and spread across the world by mid-century. In fact, zazou probably got its name from a song called “Zah Zuh Zahby” by Cab Calloway, a Harlem jazz musician. Apart from the jazz clubs and cinemas, zazous frequented two main cafes in Paris, the Pam Pam cafe on the Champs-Élysées and the Boul’Mich on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. They drank fruit juice or beer with a shot of grenadine syrup, and were particularly fond of grated carrot salad.

Cab Calloway and the American zoot suit influenced the zazou aesthetic. (20th Century Fox)

“To be a zazou meant you had to have time, leisure, and money to spend on [this type of protest],” says Sarah Fishman, associate dean of undergraduate studies at the University of Houston. Zazous were typically educated, wealthy and between the ages of 17 and 20.

Yet the zazous were the most visible, the most branded in their displeasure. When the yellow star was forced upon Jews, some zazous wore their own yellow star painted with the word “zazou.” March 27, 1942, was the day the first train of Jews left Paris for Auschwitz, and also the day of the barbershop decree. The Cri du Peuple newspaper ran a drawing of a Vichy youth organization member forcibly cutting a zazou’s hair. They began rounding up the zazous from their cafes and cinemas and beating them in the street.

“They drove the officials crazy. They hated this phenomenon,” says Fishman. The collaborationist newspaper La Gerbe proclaimed on June 25, 1942, “We are having great difficulty in eliminating the venom of Americanism. It has entered our customs, impregnated our civilization. We must devote our utmost efforts against these transgressions of taste and bearing: the decline of critical faculties, the follies of nigger jazz and swing, the contagion of our youth by American cocktail parties.”

In July 1942, French officials mounted the most aggressive expulsion yet, raiding cafes to collect zazous and send them to work camps in the countryside. Another Vichy-symphathizing paper, Gringoire, celebrated that the police had stomped “the perverted kids and idle little girls who haunt the cafes and brasseries of the Champs-Élysées and the Latin quarter who have adopted the slogan: A swing France in a zazou Europe.”

Depictions of zazou in the pro-Vichy newspaper, Gringoire.

As zazous escaped underground, the lore around them only grew. It was difficult, after all, for authorities to distinguish between a political uprising and a mere commercial trend. It’s partly why showbusiness loved the group’s subversive message. Singer Andrex released “Y’a des zazous” in 1944:

Up until now a man could be black or white or yellow or red and that’s all,

But a new race was born, it’s the Zazous.

A false collar up to the jaws with a jacket down to the knees,

Hair down the back,

That’s the Zazou, that’s the Zazou.

There are Zazous in my neighborhood

I’m half there myself

And one of these days,

You’ll all be Zazous like them,

Because the Zazou is contagious.

It’s difficult to say when zazou culture truly died out, but historians estimate it began when Germany imposed forced labor in France between 1942 and 1943. Says Fishman, “That’s the point where you don’t want to call attention to yourself as an able-bodied young man.”

Though the zazou movement ultimately dissipated, it helped establish what youth counterculture could look like—fashionable freaks with a message.