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.

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."

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.
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.

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