Frank Tellez wearing hat and zoot suit, June 11, 1943.

(Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-130597, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002709317/)

Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

In Chapter 7: Embodiment, Beauty, and the Viewer, we discussed the idea that wealth and power often determine what is fashionable. Yet it is also the case that style can originate with those outside the mainstream culture, often in challenge to it. Such styles can reveal much about power and outsider status. Zoot suits are a case in point.

The zoot suit fashion craze seems to have first taken hold among Black Harlem dance hall youth in the 1930’s, but soon also included Mexican American and other youth who adapted the style to reflect their unique ethnic identities (Alvarez, 2008; Peiss, 2011). The fad created anxiety among many racial minority parents who feared their children were straying from their roots and it also created anxiety among many white authorities who felt both puzzled and threatened by this alien ethnic take on femininity and masculinity. By1943 these cultural tensions would culminate in a strange spasm of violence on the streets of Los Angeles.

So, what, exactly is a zoot suit? Farid Chenoune (1993) explained that

The zoot suit with its oversized jacket (often double-breasted, always wide-shouldered) that might be striped or checked, fell to the knees and hung like some baggy frock-coat. Low-crotched zoot pants that were held up with eccentric suspenders, swallowed the lower half of the bust, then skirted around the hips and bagged at the thighs before narrowing to sit softly on fine, lightweight shoes. This euphoric costume would be completed – or rather, rendered more glorious – by a striking, luxuriantly hand-painted tie, a colorful pocket handkerchief, an endless watch-chain and a wide brimmed hat. (p. 208)

The zoot style was popular in swing dance halls like Harlem’s Savoy Ball Room, where such a suit could survive energetic jitterbugging and also be shown off “to best effect” as it swirled (Alvarez; White & White, 1998, p. 255). Popularized in part by jazz artists such as Cab Calloway, zoot suits caught on among depression-era youth coming of age as the U.S. geared up for and entered World War II, many of whom had spending money for clothes and leisure activities for the first time in their lives (Alvarez; Peiss).

The zoot suit fad became a “racially and ethnically diverse youth culture” movement, accompanied by hair styles and slang unique to the ethnic groups that participated in the fad (Ramírez, 2009, p. 4). African American “hep cat” men conked (straightened) their hair and spoke an African American slang known as jive. Mexican American pachuco men wore a duckbill hairstyle (with hair curled over the front of their head sweeping back) and spoke a form of Spanglish known as caló (Alvarez; Galindo, 1992). Some second generation Japanese Americans (known as Nisei) sported the “Nisei pachuco style” even in U.S. internment camps during the war (Alvarez, p. 84-5; Peiss). The style was adopted by some Filipinos and by European-American men, including working-class people of Italian and Eastern European descent, and the look spread into middle-class, white America (Alvarez; Peiss).

Mexican American youth in zoot suits. One newspaper referred to zoot suiters as “gamin [neglected street child] dandies.” (Alvarez, p. 190). (Photo: Shades of LA Collection, Los Angeles Times.)

Soldier inspecting a couple of zoot suits at the Uline Arena, Washington, DC, June 1942.

(Library of Congress, JohnFerrell, photographer, LC-USF34-011543-D, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998022985/PP/)

As a suit, the zoot suit conveyed a sense of masculinity and maturity. The square shoulders gave the wearer a “macho look” (Tyler, 2008, p. 383). Women also participated in the zoot suit fad. Mexican American “slick chicks” or pachucas in Los Angeles wore

A cardigan or V-neck sweater and a long, broad shouldered “finger-tip” coat; a knee-length (and therefore relatively short) pleated skirt; fishnet stockings or bobby socks; and platform heels, saddle shoes, or huarache sandals. Many also wore dark lipstick and used foam inserts called “rats” to lift their hair into a high bouffant. For extra panache, some lightened their hair with peroxide, sported tattoos, or wore the masculine version of the zoot suit. (Ramírez, p. xii)

To Mexican immigrant parents, their U.S.-born daughters and sons were not Mexican enough with their “American” style of dress and hybrid caló slang. Mexican-born parents were “aghast” as their daughters donned heavy make-up, teased their hair (abandoning the traditional braids and buns of their mothers), and wore scandalously short skirts for un-chaperoned nights in dance halls (Escobedo, 2007, 145-6). The zoot style became associated with gang behavior and youth crime and juvenile delinquency (Peiss; Ramírez).

According to Alvarez, “male zoot suiters were often labeled by urban authorities, the media and the general public as overly feminine for their constant attention to appearance and female zoot suiters as too masculine for what was perceived as bold and very public behavior” (p. 5). In southern California, servicemen in dance halls razzed pachucos by asking, “May I have this dance, Miss?” (Peiss, p. 117). The style represented “an alternative U.S. manhood – nonwhite, rebellious and extravagant” (p. 105) according to Alvarez, which was at odds with war-time values, particularly after the War Production Board issued an order in 1942 effectively outlawing the production (but not ownership) of zoot suits in an effort to save material for the war (Peiss).

Zoot Suit Riots

Zoot suiters lined up outside Los Angeles jail en route to court after feud with sailors, June 9, 1943. (Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-113319, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95504788/)

During the first week of June 1943, tensions between zoot suiters and military personnel escalated into what became known as the zoot suit riots (Alvarez). Hundreds or perhaps even thousands of Mexican-American men were attacked, as well as African Americans, Filipinos and whites – zooters and non-zoot suiters (Alvarez).

The causes of the riot are complex but much of the hostility seems to have stemmed from male competition for women. Some Mexican Americans and others believed that sailors and other servicemen thought Mexican girls were “easy,” “loose” and “wild” and they were “jealously guarded by Mexican American boys” as a kind of “sexual property” (Alvarez, pp. 180-181). There was also a belief among some servicemen that the zoot suiters were a threat to white women. Rumors of rape spread among both zoot suiters and servicemen adding more fuel to the fire (Alvarez).

Pachucas being arrested. All three wear baggy pants and the young woman on the right wears sandals.

(Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1942. Photo by Jack A. Herod. Copyright Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission)

Despite the existence of the Rosie the Riveter archetype, American propaganda at the time also fostered a feminine patriot ideal that Ramírez noted, “symbolized ‘innocence, gentleness, idealism, continuity and safety’ – in short, the besieged nation – and was usually depicted in American propaganda campaigns as a white, middle-class housewife and mother” under threat from Axis marauders (Ramírez, pp. 64-5). To those of a more xenophobic bent, the zoot suiters could be seen as an extension of this threat: unpatriotic loafers of questionable racial background who were a menace to white women. Pachucas were also negatively portrayed in the press as “ruthless hooligans on the prowl for white women” and rumors spread that they stashed knives in their tall hairdos (Alvarez, p. 191).

Remarkably, no one died in the rioting and few were seriously injured (Ramírez). However, servicemen (and some police as well) not only beat zoot suiters but cut off their long hair and stripped them of their clothes (often described as being “unpantsed”) in what Mauricio Mazón (1984) said reenacted the “‘stripping’ rituals” of basic training in which inductees had their hair shorn and civilian clothes removed in a “symbolically castrating experience” (p. 86-87). Alvarez argued that the servicemen in their tight fitting masculine uniforms were performing a kind of heroic white masculinity through their violence. The zooters were not only victims, but also perpetrated attacks themselves against servicemen asserting their pachuco and African-American masculinity and transgressive pachuca femininity.

Zoot suiters were paradoxical symbols. To some their exuberant and broadly popular fashion was a deeply American sign of individuality and freedom (Peiss). The pan-racial appeal of the zoot suit and the inter-racial nature of swing dance culture put it in opposition to the dominant segregationist culture. At the same time, others viewed it as unpatriotic and a disturbingly racialized symbol of non-white identities. Some segments of the African American and Mexican immigrant communities viewed zooters as casting shame on their ethnic communities. All of these contradictory views were charged by deeply gendered ideas of femininity and masculinity. Male zoot suiters were perceived as both hypermasculine and hypersexual and at the same time ridiculed as effeminate dandies. Pachucas similarly were perceived as either monstrously feminine, unconstrained by middle-class conceptions of modesty, or monstrously masculine women who appeared in public without the protection of men and took part in traditionally masculine gang and criminal activity.

REFERENCES

Alvarez, L. (2008). The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance During World War II. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Chenoune, F. (1993). A History of Men’s Fashion. Paris, France: Flammarion.

Escobedo, E. R. (2007, Summer). The Pachuca Panic: Sexual and Cultural Battlegrounds in World War II Los Angeles. Western Historical Quarterly38, 133-156.

Galindo, L. (1992, January-April). Dispelling the Male-Only Myth. Chicanas and Calo. Bilingual Review / La Revista Bilingüe, 17(1), 3-35.

Mazón, M. (1984). The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Peiss, K. (2011). Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ramírez, C.S. (2009). The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism and the Cultural Politics of Memory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tyler, B. (2008). Zoot Suit Culture and the Black Press. In A. Reilly, & S. Cosbey (Eds.), The Men’s Fashion Reader (pp. 381-391). New York, NY: Fairchild Books.

White, S., & White, G. (1998). Stylin: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.