Zoot-Suit Culture and the Black Press

By Tyler, Bruce | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Zoot-Suit Culture and the Black Press


Tyler, Bruce, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


During World War II blacks were nationally identified as Zoot-Suiters, and New York's Harlem was considered by some as the Zoot-Suit capital. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson in the film Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Cab Calloway in Stormy Weather (1943) donned Zoot-Suits and made them synonymous with blacks. But many whites, such as Italians and Mexicans in Los Angeles, wore them too.

Several reasons were basic for youths wearing Zoot-Suits. Some were declaring their independence from parents, society and their social and cultural norms. For others, it was a spontaneous youth movement. Some youths adopted it as the proper costume for jitterbugging on the dance floor. A very small minority used it as a cover for crime and gang activity (Rogers 259-61; Redl, "Zoot-Suits..." 25961). Horace R. Cayton said this element had a "Bigger Thomas mentality" (a reference to the protagonist in Richard Wright's novel Native Son who accidentally killed a white girl [Cayton 13]). Bigger Thomas a was a ghetto youth whose criminal activity resulted from anti-social behavior brought on by racial discrimination and segregation which restricted his opportunities for employment and social mobility in mainstream American society.

Zoot-Suit culture was an invented tradition, a youth culture. Eric Hobsbawm defined an invented tradition this way: "Inventing tradition...is essentially a process of formalization and ritualization, characterized by reference to the past, if only by imposing repetition" (Hobsbawm and Ranger 4). The black press and films featuring popular black entertainers helped spread the wearing of Zoot-Suits. The black press, by portraying Zoot-Suiters as criminals or as persons dressed in the latest fashion, conducted "rituals of status elevation" of Blacks and at the same time reflected "rituals of status reversal" to defy white authority and culture (Turner 167).

Noel Dyck's study of the recent Indian "Political Powwow" movement on the West Coast from Canada to New Mexico helps to shed light on the Zoot-Suiters and their culture and influence on black and white society. Dyck said that urban Indians took over the traditional Indian culture and "Powwow" and eclipsed the power and authority of traditional leaders still on the reservations. They thereby gained social and cultural authority over Indian affairs in the national governments of Canada and the United States (Dyck 165-84). Zoot-Suiters threatened to do the same in black social and cultural life. The black assimilationists felt threatened by Zooters because they appeared to be too militant. Also, they rejected white culture and authority, threatening the civil-rights movement because many whites resented black Zoot-Suiters as troublemakers in their outlandish dress.

Black Zoot-Suiters were perceived as carefree party-goers and draft-dodgers who rejected patriotism and unity during World War II. Similarly, the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was dominated by blacks and mulattoes. Groups called "blocos, with their own songs and sambas, often subversive of the regime and not at all respecters of its persons" dominated. "In addition, countless people dressed in their 'private fantasies' stroll, flirt, get drunk, and make love in the streets and squares...." The submerged underclass blacks used the Carnival in Rio to elevate their status and reverse the status of the wealthy and powerful political and bureaucratic leaders (Turner 130-31). Zoot-Suiters threatened to do the same in the United States during World War II. This generated widespread concern among the black press, civil rights leaders and local and national authorities seeking to restrict the use of cloth needed for uniforms for the armed services.

The black press attempted to counter black Zoot-Suiters with their own "status degradation ceremony." That is "any communicative work between persons, whereby the public identity of an actor is transformed into something looked on as lower in the local scheme of social types, will be called a 'status degradation ceremony'. …

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