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Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

Kathy Peiss

(University of Pennsylvania Press; US: Jun 2011)

It started discreetly, if one could call it that. Sometime in the late ‘80s or ‘90s, certain young men of the hip-hop generation started wearing their jeans beltless and letting them sag a bit below the waist. Some thought it was a reflection of jailhouse couture, which doesn’t allow belts, while others speculated it was a way to show off the designer brands of their boxer shorts.  No matter, the fashion caught on, and has only become more extreme over time.


How much more extreme? Now it’s commonplace to see pants sagging down all the way past the bottom of the butt, exposing those plaid boxers in all their glory. Some urban-wear clothes makers even gave up the ghost and started cutting pants specifically to be worn that low, without dragging all over the ground. So at any given moment in the American ‘hood (and, increasingly, beyond it), you can see guys walking around with their underwear-covered backsides in full view. No one is entirely certain what fashion statement those fellas are trying to make, or even if they’re attempting to make a conscious statement at all. In any event they are, quite literally, letting it all hang out.


Not surprisingly, lots of folks don’t like it. Their disdain of the fashion zooms well past questions of taste and propriety, and takes the practice as symbolic of greater societal ills.These trou-sagging heathen have no respect for themselves or their communities, as the rant invariably goes, no shred of common decency, no appreciation of the importance of image projection in the broader society and the message walking around like that might send, no knowledge of their ancestors who are surely turning over in their graves so they don’t have to see them parading around like that, and no shame. Go to any whither-black-youth panel discussion or community forum these days, and the subject invariably comes up, with folks getting more emotionally worked up about that than they do about minor side topics like school funding or law enforcement.


Speaking of the latter, politicians have butted in on the discussion, as well. They’ve passed laws in municipalities across the country to ban the fashion. Various school districts have enacted dress codes against it, and in Fort Worth, Texas, you aren’t allowed to ride the bus without pulling up your pants. Never mind the fact that trying to legislate fashion could violate the wearer’s First Amendment right to free speech. And never mind the sense of many groups that there could be some back-door racial profiling as a result of such laws: reaction against the saggy pants phenomenon has struck a chord. But despite the constant moral outrage from elders, pundits and whomever else is offended, young black men continue to expose their colorful plaid drawers like it’s nobody’s business at all.


Before we all get our knickers in more of a twist than they already may be, a quick history lesson is in order. This isn’t the first time that American youth fashion caused hang-wringing uproar. Further, this isn’t the first time that young men of color were the ones sporting the fashion, or older folks of color were among those doing the uproaring. University of Pennsylvania professor Kathy Peiss provides some useful perspective to our current state of sagginess, taking us back to a relatively brief moment when the idea that “clothes make the man” led some to adopt a wild sartorial departure from the mainstream, and others to beat them viciously for having made that choice.


Peiss’ research reveals the zoot suit, as with many a cultural meme then and now, sprang from both everywhere and nowhere. A certain brand of dandyism had always been apparent in various strains of black male fashion, as a way of demarking oneself from the status quo. During the ‘30s black men and (often Jewish) tailors in black neighborhoods, started hacking the traditional shape of the business suit, widening the lapels and lengthening the jacket and ballooning the pants legs from a wide knee to a narrow cuff at the ankle. As the style caught on, with help from style-conscious musicians, mail-order operations emerged to sell the new garments, and the more enterprising folks retrofitted existing jackets and slacks.


At the onset of World War II, the US government tried to regulate the emerging style, by maintaining that the excess fabric was needed for the war effort. That didn’t work, as tailors and suit makers simply continued their work underground, and the government relaxed its restrictions well before the end of the war. But, Peiss argues, their actions had one lasting, if unintended, effect: attempts to regulate the manufacture of zoot suits allowed some folks to cast aspersions upon those who wore them.


The government wasn’t the only voice to question the propriety of zoot suits. Peiss cites black newspapers and commentators among those who associated the fashion with – sound familiar? - the ne’er-do-wells of the hood (this, even while actors and dancers wore it with panache in black-cast movies like 1943’s Stormy Weather).


But the most vehement reaction by far happened in Los Angeles. Young Mexican-American men adopted zoot suits as their own distinctive fashion, and white commentators used the style as a symbol of their alleged incorrigible delinquency. From there, it became a short leap to seeing white soldiers beat down zoot suit wearers (always the black and brown wearers, never the white ones), often ripping the clothes directly off their bodies. Thus, the infamous Zoot Suit Riot of 1943, part of the still-relatively unheralded story of how black and brown Americans suffered on the homefront, while a still-segregated, “Greatest Generation” armed forces battled Hitler in Europe (in that respect, Zoot Suit is an especially valuable contribution to a field of study in need of further exploration).


The aftermath of the riots saw sociologists attempt to weigh in on the meaning of the suits, as if a broad lapel was a direct indication of a political viewpoint. Peiss notes that one of the problems with such overreaching was that it wasn’t grounded in anything the people who wore those suits actually thought. She writes that very little first-person accounting of the mindset of zoot suit wearers exists – just as, one might note, not too many people have bothered to record why exactly young brothas nowadays let their pants sag.


For all the controversy, it’s the suit itself that got the last laugh. American pop culture – even those extreme characterizations that denigrated zoot suit wearers – spread the fashion worldwide, where it took on a stigma-free life of its own. It became something of a prideful symbol to later generations of Mexican-Americans. And it ultimately became seen as a cute piece of WWII-era nostalgia, ripe for rebranding during the neo-swing music fad of the ‘90s (the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies hit “Zoot Suit Riot” gives no hint whatsoever of the actual terror and menace of the actual incident).


Peiss’ history is thorough, well-researched and illuminating. It’s written with a bit more heft than many other recent cultural histories of pop fashions and trends, but past its introduction is blessedly free of academic jargon. As such, it ought to be required reading for all those who want to make official hay from the distaste for the saggy pants phenomenon. While it’s quite legitimate to wonder why anyone would walk around like that, it can be a slippery slope from there to much more serious actions, with much more serious consequences. It might be time for everyone to take a deep breath and think about this beltless fashion for a bit, seeing as how it seems to be nowhere near…the end.

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Mark Reynolds has written extensively about African-American culture and celebrity since the late '80s. He began his print journalism career with the weekly Cleveland Edition, and was a longtime contributor to its successor, Cleveland Free Times. He has also written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and various publications in Cleveland and Philadelphia. His national credits include reviews and features for the college-distributed entertainment magazine Hear/Say, and reporting on the travel industry for the trade magazine Black Meetings & Tourism. His media criticism was honored in 2004 by the Society of Professional Journalists, Ohio chapter.


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By Kathy Peiss
10 Jun 2011
Los Angeles’s 1943 “zoot suit riot” may be the only time in American history that fashion was believed to be the cause of widespread civil unrest.
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