Zoot Suit

The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

by Kathy Peiss

10 June 2011


A True Measure of the Zoot Suit

Indeed, historians repeatedly highlight a handful of individuals to represent the politicized views of zoot suiters. Caught in a police roundup and harangued in court about his looks, Alfred Barela was one of the few Mexican American youths to leave a statement that explicitly linked his civil rights to the right to dress as he pleased. Beyond this exchange with the judge, we know little about him, yet he has come to embody the political perspectives of wartime pachucos. Malcolm X produced a riveting account of his early life as Malcolm Little, a young black man in Boston and New York, where he embraced the world of zoot suiters and street hustlers, jive talk and jitterbug. Recalling those days twenty years later, he saw these urban pleasures as signs of his spiraling degradation as a black man; the son of a Garveyite and radicalized in the Nation of Islam, he understood the complexities of African American politics, but he did not portray street life as a world of political meaning. Yet Malcolm X is widely accepted as evidence of the zoot suiter as a figure of resistance. In a prevailing interpretation, Robin Kelley reads The Autobiography of Malcolm X against the grain of the author’s intentions, calling the style of the street an “essential element of his radicalization” and a way to “negotiate an identity that resisted the hegemonic culture.” Kelley uses a series of active verbs—challenge, refuse, carve out—that suggest a sense of purpose in Malcolm Little’s world. “While the suit itself was not meant as a direct political statement,” he writes, “the social context in which it was created and worn rendered it so.” This begs the question of whose context: the men Malcolm describes as hustlers and homeboys? The African American communities responding to such men? Black intellectuals and commentators like Ralph Ellison? White media and political institutions? The context may in fact be our contemporary politics and culture, particularly on the left—a romantic view of rebellion and pushback “from below,” not through formal politics or organization but through quotidian culture.

Although usually discussed as a key element of Mexican American or African American youth subcultures, the zoot suit appeared across the main fault lines of social difference in the United States—among Filipinos, Japanese Americans, men of Jewish and Italian descent, jitterbug-crazy middle-class boys, and even Mexican American women and working-class lesbians.

Readings of style for their political meaning often bolster the boundaries between youth subcultures and a unified “mainstream” culture. Thus scholars see the zoot suit as a symbol of disloyalty and disaffection of minority youth, and typically contrast it to the soldier’s uniform, which stands for a militarized white American culture. This flat interpretation of clothing’s symbolism reinforces the perception of opposition and hostility on each side, an oversimplification that fails to register a much more complex set of reactions. The concept of subculture also separates groups of youth from one another, a tendency exacerbated by the elaboration of academic subfields. The early studies of the zoot suit divided African Americans from Mexican Americans, East Coast from West; the propensity in subcultural studies to examine a single ethnic/ racial group in a specific locale meant that the national and international dimensions of this style were left unexamined.

Since 1990, scholars of contemporary youth subcultures have moved away from the direct correlation between cultural styles and practices, on the one hand, and traditional categories of social relations, on the other. Taking a postmodern approach, such cultural analysts as David Muggleton and Sarah Thornton argue that the global circulation of goods, images, and identities has meant that style can no longer be affixed to coherent groups or subcultures defined by class, race, or region. Ethnographies of music and dance scenes around the world document not only the growing importance of consumption and leisure but also the critical role of the media in labeling and popularizing new subcultures, often in ways that oversimplify the messiness of cultural and social encounters. Emphasizing the fluidity of youth styles and social identities, they also tend to confine the idea of resistance through style to the cultural arena rather than perceiving a political critique or protest.

These postmodern perspectives on modern-day youth culture have had significant impact among historians, particularly the idea of hybrid social identities and affiliations that may cross lines of class, race, or gender. Some recent historians of the zoot suit and the Los Angeles riot now identify a “zoot culture” in which African Americans, Mexican Americans, Filipinos, and other young people of color, along with some working-class whites, shared an obsession with extreme style, favored leisure pursuits over labor, forged public interracial connections that “challenged the segregated sensibilities of 1940s America,” and formed an “imagined community.” This effort is suggestive, yet it too easily reifies cultural style as the basis of the social and political relationships of youth. Interestingly, young men who wore zoot suits rarely called themselves “zoot suiters”; indeed, they often objected to that name, distinguishing themselves from others who were the “real” zoot suiters. It may be, Sarah Thornton argues, that “subcultures are best defined as social groups that have been labeled as such.”

* * *

The zoot suit certainly gained a political charge in June 1943, when, in the context of the Los Angeles riot, many understood it to be a style of refusal and opposition. But before that moment and after, the zoot suit broadcast other meanings to wearers and non-wearers alike. As with all forms of dress, it was a material object—cloth cut and stitched to cover the body, to allow movement and to constrain it—and a malleable symbolic form, a medium of nonverbal communication. The phenomenon was as bound up in the choreography of sexual attraction, the negotiation of gender identity, conflict between generations, and the pursuit of pleasure within a specific music and dance culture as much if not more than it was motivated by a politics of opposition. Although usually discussed as a key element of Mexican American or African American youth subcultures, the zoot suit appeared across the main fault lines of social difference in the United States—among Filipinos, Japanese Americans, men of Jewish and Italian descent, jitterbug-crazy middle-class boys, and even Mexican American women and working-class lesbians. Created initially in an unspoken collaboration among manufacturers, retailers, and young male consumers—mainly but not exclusively African American— the zoot suit migrated quickly from Harlem and other urban centers to small cities and towns around the country. This rapid circulation was abetted by a segment of the garment trade, specialists in clothing fashions and fads they intentionally promoted as “extreme.” Even after the government moved to conserve fabric required for military and other uses, the zoot suit grew in popularity as it entered into public awareness through music, movies, and the press. The reet pleat and drape shape came to be meaningful in a web of immediate social interactions and cultural representations. On the home front, it simultaneously signaled racial-ethnic identity and a broader youth identity, although neither was wholly separated from the rest of American culture. Indeed, as it began to travel around the world, these connections became tightly intertwined—the zoot suit as an identifiably American style.

More than the young men who embraced this style, it was the police and governmental authorities that created the political meaning of the zoot suit, as they sought a threatening symbol to describe and encapsulate an array of behaviors and demeanors that to them made little sense. The conditions that rendered the style political came to a head chiefly in one locale, Los Angeles, where a peculiar mix of elements in the early 1940s—the war economy, multiethnic and racial tensions, mass media, and local politics—narrowly focused attention on the zoot suit. For months, Mexican American men wearing zoot suits had become targets. The death of a young man in what became known as the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, along with a high-profile trial of pachucos in 1942, intensified the labeling of zoot suiters as a public danger and spurred a politicized sense of the attire. These perceptions deepened in the L.A. riot, feeding the fervor of sailors and civilians out to “punish” zoot suiters, and simultaneously fostering a more assertive politics among Mexican Americans. Only much later, however, did the zoot suiter became a heroic figure of popular resistance, when he became assimilated into the historical mythologies and political imagination of Chicano activists and artists, black nationalists, scholars of cultural studies, and radical historians.

This book examines an extreme fashion and its enigmatic career during and after World War II, in search of the zoot suit’s many meanings. Capturing the imagination of people across the United States and around the world, the style generated many interpretations, including a host of forceful political readings. For those who wore the zoot suit, however, everyday aesthetics was less an assertion of politics than “a device for living” and “practice of the self,” as Ian Hunter puts it. How was this aesthetic practice related to the social lives and experiences of youths of many different backgrounds and to the cultural and political landscape of wartime America? Why did this style continue to resonate, in so many places and over the decades? How might we take a truer measure of the zoot suit?

Photo by Arthur Copeland / University of Pennsylvania

Photo by Arthur Copeland
/ University of Pennsylvania

Kathy Peiss is Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press, and Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York.

© Kathy Peiss

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Jason Molina's Mythological Palette, Warts and All

// Re:Print

"Osmon lights the oil lamps on the process of Molina’s creative wonder, from toddling on the shores of Lake Erie to the indie folk pedestal he so deservedly sits upon today.

READ the article