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.
Author: Kathy Peiss
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press
Publication date: 2011-06
Length: 240 pages
Affiliate: http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/14876.html (University of Pennsylvania Press)
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/b/bythebook-zootsuit-cvr.jpgIn 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.
Subordinated by Fashion
By the 1960s, some students of subcultures had begun to turn the earlier focus on deviance and alienation on its head. Influenced by the expansion of postwar youth cultures and the rise of a teen market, they began to see style as a critical mode of social communication. The most influential rethinking of youth culture occurred at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in England. Strongly influenced by postwar British Marxism, which gave fresh attention to everyday life, cultural practices, and the subjectivity of the working class, scholars and activists affiliated with the Birmingham School were also newly cognizant of the way consumerism, mass media, and the welfare state were reshaping what it meant to be working class. Young men, breaking away from traditional working-class mores and commitments, embraced a congeries of styles and tastes that drew on mass culture only to parody and undermine its dominant messages. Viewed as more than simply youthful fads, teddy boys, mods, rockers, and punks could offer insight into profound changes in British culture and class relations from the 1950s through the 1970s. The Birmingham cultural analysts sought to explain youths’ embrace of extreme fashion, new music, and spirited pleasure-seeking in political terms, even as they moved beyond an understanding of politics as formal, deliberate, and collective behavior to consider what Ralph Ellison decades earlier had called “incipient forms of action.”
Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) was an especially compelling exposition of this view, with its attention to youth self-fashioning in the context of socioeconomic and political transformations. Citing British punks as an example, Hebdige argued that subcultural groups appropriated and refashioned the objects of consumer culture into distinctive ensembles. This mixture of aesthetic elements, typically spectacular in style and visibility, carried “‘secret’ meanings [that] express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination.” Strong assertions of style reinforced group identity—as earlier analysts claimed—but did even more: Song lyrics, dance steps, and clothing styles expressed the questioning and rejection of a social order that had placed unemployed and disadvantaged youths at the margins. Even so, this inchoate resistance was less likely to lead to a deepened political consciousness than to reinforce subordination. Hebdige pointed to the ways that music and fashion originating among lower-class youths were easily domesticated and profitably commodified in a consumer society. At the same time, authorities moved to label these phenomena as deviant or abnormal, as a way to contain them. “The cycle leading from opposition to defusion, from resistance to incorporation encloses each successive subculture,” he concluded.
The object of such cultural analysis was a more sophisticated understanding of socioeconomic class in late capitalism. Critical extensions of this perspective came quickly, with studies that underscored the importance of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity in comprehending young people’s subcultures and the conditions of social marginality and discrimination. These offered important correctives to approaches that tended to romanticize white male subcultures and spotlight class analysis to the exclusion of feminist and critical race perspectives. As the ideas and interests of the Birmingham School spread and became codified into the field of cultural studies, however, this broad social analysis frequently became merely prelude to the exploration of style, music, and consumer culture as a form of agency and a means of resistance. These subjects would become central areas of inquiry in the humanities and qualitative social sciences in the late twentieth century.
Remarkably, the Birmingham School’s approach to the politics of style, formulated in the 1970s, continues to have a durable grip on the work of contemporary American historians and other scholars, who understand twentieth-century fashion, music, and dance as markers of an oppositional social identity among youth rooted in class and racial experience. This is readily apparent in studies of the zoot suit riot. An instructive contrast may be drawn between the first two published works on this subject. Mauricio Mazón’s 1984 book, The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation, stressed the psychodynamics of the riot; his analysis, however well respected, did not become a model for later historical work. In the same year, Stuart Cosgrove’s “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare” (1984) applied Hebdige’s framework to what seemed a perfect historical antecedent. Calling the zoot suit “a subcultural gesture that refused to concede to the manners of subservience,” Cosgrove viewed the Los Angeles unrest in 1943 not as “political riots in the strictest sense” but rather as an “entry into the language of politics, an inarticulate rejection of the ‘straight world’ and its organization.” On a political spectrum from acquiescence to collective action, Mexican American zoot suiters occupied an amorphous middle ground, where they acted out their defiance in a symbolic if not a strategic way.
These ideas about style politics and resistance dominate subsequent historical accounts of the zoot suit. To George Lipsitz, the zoot suit “conveyed a bold sense of self-assertion that reflected the social struggles waged for equal rights and fair employment practices.” Black zoot suiters were ” ‘race rebels’ of sorts,” argues Robin Kelley, “challenging middle-class ethics and expectations, carving out a distinct generational and ethnic identity, and refusing to be good proletarians.” “The struggle for dignity by zoot suiters was thus a politics of refusal,” observes Luis Alvarez, whose work aims to show “how the zoot functioned as a form of opposition at the same time that it reinforced wartime hierarchies of race, gender and class power.” Although cognizant of formal organizations and self-conscious political actors, these works place greater weight on the bundle of everyday cultural rituals and symbols, including styles of clothing, that enable political or quasi-political expression.
Notwithstanding the significant contributions of these and other scholars to our understanding of the war years, these statements are symptomatic of the enduringly problematic practice of reading aesthetic forms as politics. Certainly the history of many disadvantaged and marginalized groups is filled with examples of resistance that do not operate at the level of collective or intentional political action. We can recognize the many ways that style, music, and dance articulate and foster a sense of group identity and collective behavior that may challenge cultural norms and offer political commentary. This is especially the case among African Americans, whose traditions of “styling,” lampooning performances, and subterranean codes of communication have been thoroughly documented by historians, anthropologists, and literary critics. Without the same degree of continuity, American women, working-class peoples, immigrants, and various ethnic groups have on many occasions interpreted and deployed appearance to make such points. In the words of anthropologist James C. Scott, the cultural domain provides certain “weapons” to the weak; the “hidden transcripts” of their deployment may be read not only by those using them, but also by discerning scholars.
For many students of popular culture, however, the idea that the aesthetic realm is subsumed within the political is simply a given, and crucial questions about the relationship between these domains are left unexplored. Is there an enduring relationship between fashion and social action? When should aesthetic and cultural forms be seen as political, and how will we know it? Is simply donning a zoot suit sufficient evidence of a politics? What intentions must lie behind it to qualify? Appearance, gesture, and style articulate a range of social meanings, including at times a rejection of perceived cultural norms. But historians have moved too easily to assimilate the zoot suit style to wartime politics, and to claim this aesthetic as a kind of resistance to political authority, stamping a template over the zoot suit beyond what the evidence can bear, and aggregating categories and considerations that should be kept analytically distinct.
Several problems arise in interpretations of the zoot suit and other extreme youth styles as political gestures of refusal. One is the dilemma of evidence. Zoot suiters did not leave diaries and letters explaining why they embraced the style and what it meant to them. Scholars have often relied on a small set of examples and documents to examine the meaning of the zoot suit for Mexican American and African American youth, and have done little to consider young white men of different ethnic backgrounds who also wore the style. Cosgrove’s article, frequently reprinted and cited, has had extended influence since its publication in 1984, despite its use of only a small number of printed sources, mainly from the New York Times and other newspapers. More recently, a new generation of scholars has explored archival sources in Los Angeles and begun to collect oral histories of Mexican American and African American youth to gain insight into the daily lives of surviving participants. Such interviews offer a significant counterweight to the representations of racial minorities that recur in the written record of the time. Still, memory has been filtered through the decades after World War II, a period marked by strengthened commitment to civil rights and an assertive Latino identity which now shapes the viewpoint of those looking back on their earlier experiences. Analysis of historical evidence often reveals a conceptual confusion between the individuals who understand their own cultural practices and beliefs as a subculture and those who conceptualize subcultures, as sociologist Chris Jenks puts it, “for specific rhetorical, political, or moral purposes.” Inevitably we know much more about public attitudes toward the zoot suit—from journalists, commentators, experts, and government officials—than we do the contemporary views of those who wore the style.
And how do we read the evidence of fashion and style? Scholars have adopted a semiotic approach to dress and other aesthetic forms, but this method may be highly subjective if not corroborated by ethnographic or historical accounts that reveal the viewpoints of those who actually wore the garments. The plausibility of such readings may seem self-evident, but that may be due more to our contemporary attitudes toward cultural politics than to the preponderance of evidence from the past. Zoot suiters themselves spoke largely through their appearance—clothing, gestures, and personas—and these are treacherous signals to read. When they vocally addressed the meaning of their clothes at the time or in retrospect, it was most often to comment on the beauty and peculiarities of the style, its connection to dance and leisure, their arguments with parents over clothes, and local fights. There is much evidence of youths’ confrontations with police and the military, as well as the discriminatory treatment they faced, but finding precise connections between the extreme style and an individual or collective sense of opposition is difficult, if not impossible.
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.
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?