Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

Kathy Peiss

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.

Excerpted from the Introduction from Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style by Kathy Peiss (footnotes omitted). Available from University of Pennsylvania Press, Copyright © 2011. Reprinted with permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


In June 1943, in the midst of World War II, the city of Los Angeles erupted in violence. White sailors and soldiers, egged on by Anglo civilians, stopped streetcars and invaded movie theaters in search of young Mexican American men—known as pachucos—beating them, tearing their jackets, and stripping them of their trousers. With newspapers and radio adding fuel to the fire, the mayhem continued for more than a week. As some Mexican American youths fought back, the navy finally put the city off limits for shore leave, and the police appeared in force—arresting these young people as troublemakers, delinquents, and rioters. No one was killed, but more than a hundred individuals landed in the hospital with serious injuries. When the riot ended, investigators and journalists spun out numerous explanations for what had occurred. Many Anglos asserted that Hispanic youth were inherently violent and criminal, while liberal voices and the African American press charged racial discrimination, magnified by wartime tensions over adequate housing, the lack of jobs, and segregated recreational facilities. Some saw the influence of Communism guiding the riot, and others perceived the frightening presence of a fascist Fifth Column.

Book: Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

Author: Kathy Peiss

Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press

Publication date: 2011-06

Format: Hardcover

Length: 240 pages

Price: $24.95

Affiliate: (University of Pennsylvania Press)

Image: the weeks and months after the Los Angeles riot, racial conflict and urban conflagration swept across the American home front, in such places as Beaumont, Texas, New York City, and Detroit, leaving death, destruction, and heightened enmity in their wake. Only in Los Angeles, however, did a style of dress become the focal point of unrest or figure prominently in the response. Most participants and observers did not refer to it as a race riot, and even fewer saw it as servicemen’s vigilantism. Rather, the unrest became enshrined as the "zoot suit riot," perhaps the only time in American history that fashion was believed to be the cause of widespread civil unrest.

"Zoot," says Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary, means something done or worn in an exaggerated style: the long killer-diller coat with a drape-shape and wide shoulders; pants with reet-pleats, billowing out at the knees, tightly tapered and pegged at the ankles; a porkpie or wide-brimmed hat; pointed or thick-soled shoes; and a long, dangling keychain. This was a striking urban look of the 1940s—a street style created by African Americans that extended conventional menswear to the point of caricature. The zoot suit was associated with racial and ethnic minorities and working-class youth, celebrated in the world of jitterbug, jive, and swing, and condemned by government authorities seeking to conserve precious textiles for the war effort. It was a style that sparked the imagination, whether as an object of fear or admiration. Where had it come from? What did it mean? Why did it evoke such visceral reactions? In the wake of the riot, journalists, social workers, psychiatrists, and police officers scrambled to comprehend the phenomenon, trying to fix its meaning within recognizable frameworks of social science, psychology, and common sense.

Despite these efforts, the zoot suit, and the circumstances in which it was worn, had a bewildering strangeness that no one could quite explain. Frank Walton, who directed the government’s wartime effort to conserve textiles and clothing, simply shook his head: "Many attempts have been made to analyze the idea and to see just what caused it and what was behind it but so far there is no good answer." Months before the Los Angeles riot, Ralph Ellison pointed to the zoot suit as one of many "myths and symbols which abound among the Negro masses" and offered clues to the state of black America, a puzzle the political class needed to decipher. Living in Los Angeles during the war, writer Octavio Paz pondered the style of Mexican American youth in the United States, whose "whole being is sheer negative impulse, a tangle of contradictions, an enigma. Even his very name is enigmatic: pachuco, a word of uncertain derivation, saying nothing and saying everything."

Over the years, the extreme style of the zoot suit has continued to resonate. It inspired the "swing youth" in 1940s Europe, attracted to the unusual dress, jazz music, and jitterbug dancing associated with American popular culture; French zazous wore elements of the style in defiance of the German Occupation. After the war, the zoot suit became a hallmark of black South African youths known as tsotsis, who integrated it into their gang and street life. Young men in Russia called stiliagi adopted the style to distance themselves from the psychological and sartorial regimentation of the Soviet Union. Counterparts emerged throughout the Eastern bloc, from Hungarian jampec to the Polish bikiniarze or "bikini boys." In the 1960s and 1970s, the zoot suit became a powerful touchstone of Chicano politics and culture. Luis Valdez’s 1978 play Zoot Suit, made into a film in 1981, revived the popular Mexican American youth style and recalled the wartime incident for a wider public and new generations. Inviting us to "put on a zoot suit and play the myth," Valdez exalted the pachuco as a legendary hero who stood against white Americans’ prejudice and discriminatory practices.

Since the mid-1980s, the zoot suit has also captivated scholars of American ethnicity and race. African American historians place zoot suiters within a longstanding tradition of black style and performance, but also consider them in relation to the resurgent civil rights activism of the war years. An even greater number of books, articles, and dissertations have focused on Mexican American youth culture and civil unrest in wartime Los Angeles: They document the lives of pachucos and pachucas; explore gender, family, and community; trace patterns of discriminatory employment, schooling, and policing; and rediscover a nascent political movement. The zoot suit riot is now understood as a formative event in Mexican American history. Whatever the specific emphases of these studies, they share an intellectual framework that attributes to style, dress, and gesture significant political behavior by those who had little formal power or ability to represent themselves through speech or texts. In this view, style offers the powerless a potent means to communicate resistance to or alienation from the dominant social order. Scholars thus see the zoot suit as an early and particularly effective form of such "style warfare," challenging the dominant social order to such an extent that it sparked a repressive and violent response.

This book also focuses on the zoot suit, but with a different aim in mind. It takes as its starting point the enduring interest in an odd style of clothing created not by social elites and fashion designers but primarily by poor black youths and marginal tailors. It explores the proliferation of meanings and values attached to this style, and the social, cultural, and political processes that generated them. It does so to challenge and contest the mode of cultural understanding that reflexively reads the aesthetic as politics by other means. This is not to say that style has nothing to do with struggles for power. There have been many moments in history when dress did, in fact, clearly signal a political position—the Phrygian cap of liberty in the French Revolution, the bloomer costume of nineteenth-century feminists, the dashiki in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Unlike these instances, the zoot suit represented a more polyvalent style to those who wore it and those who observed it. This study does not call for a return to an idea of culture as a discrete realm but is rather an effort to examine more closely the circumstances in which a cultural style may or may not be in fact political. It seeks to put the political in its place—not outside culture but occupying less of the cultural domain than contemporary scholarship bestows. In this way, we might begin to use more precisely defined concepts of politics, resistance, subculture, and identity, and trace more rigorously the meaning of style.

Going back to the early twentieth century, social investigators and academics have been interested in the culture and style of disadvantaged youth in an urban, industrial environment. The Chicago School of sociology led the way, with such studies as Frederick Thrasher’s The Gang, which examined young men’s petty criminality in relation to neighborhood identity and peer solidarity, and Harvey Zorbaugh’s The Gold Coast and the Slum, which followed Filipinos as "marginal men" who sought compensatory pleasures by paying women to dance with them. Questions about the socialization of youth into appropriate adult roles became more pressing as the motion pictures and other forms of mass culture depicted fantasy worlds of luxury, sexuality, crime, and consumption. National mobilization during World War II only heightened concerns over juvenile delinquency, even as the fads and foibles of the young were a subject of endless speculation.

By mid-century social scientists had delineated the concept of subculture to describe distinctive social worlds within the overall society, with a particular interest in subsets of youth within and among specific racial, ethnic, and economic groups. Emerging at the same time that the concept of mass culture had become commonplace, the term subculture conveyed a sense of marginality and deviance from a normative, cohesive culture, even as it explained the cultural rituals, beliefs, and styles that created particular group identities and affiliations. Indeed, the experts’ response to the zoot suit after the 1943 riot helped forge the view that certain styles, tastes, and cultural practices might constitute a subculture outside of or even in opposition to the mainstream.

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