Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style


ZOOT SUIT (n.): the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit.
--Cab Calloway, The Hepster's Dictionary, 1944

Before the fashion statements of hippies, punks, or hip-hop, there was the zoot suit, a striking urban look of the World War II era that captivated the imagination. Created by poor African American men and obscure tailors, the "drape shape" was embraced by Mexican American pachucos, working-class youth, entertainers, and swing dancers, yet condemned by the U.S. government as wasteful and unpatriotic in a time of war. The fashion became notorious when it appeared to trigger violence and disorder in Los Angeles in 1943--events forever known as the "zoot suit riot." In its wake, social scientists, psychiatrists, journalists, and politicians all tried to explain the riddle of the zoot suit, transforming it into a multifaceted symbol: to some, a sign of social deviance and psychological disturbance, to others, a gesture of resistance against racial prejudice and discrimination. As controversy swirled at home, young men in other places--French zazous, South African tsotsi, Trinidadian saga boys, and Russian stiliagi--made the American zoot suit their own.

In Zoot Suit, historian Kathy Peiss explores this extreme fashion and its mysterious career during World War II and after, as it spread from Harlem across the United States and around the world. She traces the unfolding history of this style and its importance to the youth who adopted it as their uniform, and at the same time considers the way public figures, experts, political activists, and historians have interpreted it. This outré style was a turning point in the way we understand the meaning of clothing as an expression of social conditions and power relations. Zoot Suit offers a new perspective on youth culture and the politics of style, tracing the seam between fashion and social action.


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 inadequate 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.

In 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 . . .

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