Subcultures Through The Ages: The Zoot Suit
Zoot suiters, 1943 // Charles Alston, Harlem Renaissance Artist
The zoot suit took a couple of decades in the making, originating from necessity out of the widespread poverty of the Great Depression, and eventually taking on the anti-conformist, delinquent identity it became associated with during a time where walking within the lines became the focus of a fundamental anxiety in a world torn apart by the repressions and threat of violence of WWII.
At the root of its powerful symbology lie strong cultural ties; the zoot suit being the adopted property of displaced minority groups seeking both a tangible mode of expression for the deeply felt loss of important traditional blocks of a strong cultural identity, while concurrently flaunting their inherent cultural distinctiveness through extravagant means. Clearly, the zoot suit was more than fashionable attire; it was the loud emblem of a low income, low status community in transit from one identity to another.
A lot of writing on the subject concentrates on the rebellious connotations of the suit as a stylistic token of Mexican youth’s collective cry for recognition and identity; yet this is only a definition dictated by the events that occurred towards the end of its lifespan due to the famed zoot suit riots in Los Angeles in 1943, and doesn’t fully explain its wider significance as a cultural fashion item.
Pachuco gang, 1940's
The zoot suit consists of exaggeratedly oversized blazers and large padded shoulders, high waisted, loose, rounded suit trousers pegged at the ankle, accessorized with wide neckties, flat pork pie hats and two toned platform shoes. Everything about it was inherently flashy – as flashy as a suit could ever be - in bright colors, patterned accessories and snazzy pocket watch chains; an ultra fab manifestation of existential anxieties and insecurities about status. The zoot suit was perhaps the first time in history that the office worker’s uniform was transformed into an item denoting luxury, being incredibly expensive to come by due to the extravagant amounts of fabric, and exclusively made to order at specific tailor shops; a style directly drawn from the streets walked by the working class, eventually making its way onto Louis Armstrong and into the world of modern entertainment and carefree pleasure-seeking.
It is not uncommon in areas of poverty for lavish dressing and luxury showboating to appear as integral cultural codes of dress (think African 'Sapeurs'). Langston Hughes noted in 1943 that “too much becomes just enough” for people with a history of cultural and economic poverty, and the zoot suit was just that – but not at first.
Its earliest appearances are documented to have been in the slums inhabited by poor African American youths whom, unable to purchase clothes during the Great Depression, would take on hand me downs from older men in their families and take them in at the extremities and hips so as to be practical for every day wear. However, the origin of the signature zoot suit style, when it took a specific name and symbolism through its popularization among working class jazz subcultures, is unclear.
Contenders for the creation of the zoot suit are many – such as Harold C. Fox, a tailor and bandleader from Chicago who claimed to have made the style after seeing it on poor urban teenagers. However, it’s more plausible that if Harold recreated what he saw, so did many other tailors and members of the community.
Unlike later iconic looks which can be attributed to a specific designer, group of designers or iconic figure, the zoot suit was strictly DIY; an ad hoc style brought forward from the people; the anti-brand impossible to find in any single store, acting as the ghetto forerunner to an entire encyclopedia of slouchy, designer, oversized pants to grace runways after Japanese designers brought the zoot back in more modern tailoring during the 1980’s.
Eventually, the zoot suit made its way into the urban jazz culture of the post 1920’s Jazz Age and into the African American cultural and artistic renaissance bubbling in 1930’s Harlem nightlife, a time of flourishing creativity, culture and entertainment. The zoot fit the bill perfectly: showy yet casual, loose enough to dance in all night, nonchalantly aloof, while concurrently presenting an impactful aesthetic. But even more importantly, it was a style that belonged to the carefree, fun loving youth of jazz, the name itself deriving from the common jazz slang at the time that replaced ‘s’ with ‘z’, hence turning “suit” into “zoot.”
Cab Calloway, American Jazz Singer and Bandleader
" Putting on the zoot suit, slipping your hand into one pocket, leaning back on your heels peering up from the brim of your hat -- the epitome of cool confidence "
Where jazz went, the zoot suit went, and over time, the social, political and cultural constructs associated to youth jazz culture, such as the movement’s liveliness, its connotations of a rebellious youth battling staid traditions of older generations, its defiance of segregation by bringing together people of all ethnic and economic backgrounds and its exuberant sensuality, came to be instilled in the zoot itself.
Let's not forget the ladies - badass is badass
When your grandma is cooler than you // Family pictures via Sonia Marquez
The Zoot Suit Riots
When the zoot suit hit the West Coast, it became the uniform of a subculture known as pachucos - gangs of migrant Mexican-American youths in Los Angeles that had been divided from their own language and customs, and were eventually known for their involvement with crime, drugs and their rebellious anti mainstream stand.
Mexican-Americans were Los Angeles’ largest minority group. They were segregated into separate neighborhoods and took up society’s lowest paying jobs as part of an alliance between the Mexican and the U.S. governments called the Braceros program, whereby Mexico would provide substitutive labor in farms and factories to replace the men dispatched to war. The program led to sharp, mass immigration: an influx of 4.6 million Mexican workers and their families between 1942 and 1947, which naturally only exacerbated the racial tensions already at play in a wartime society.
I say 'naturally' because an influx of cheap labor in an area creates resentment from the established work force as it tilts power in the favor of corporate interests by causing drops in minimum wage, a natural, direct effect of the interplay between demand and supply. In fashion lingo, Hermés keeps you on the waiting list for a Birkin bag for a reason – the moment they increase supply into the market it would cause an immediate price drop, unfavorable to both brand image and profit margins. Coupled with the powerlessness that came from the Braceros program's no citizenship clause and its allowance of deportation for any reason and without warning, it would be very one sided to ignore its divisive effects in creating instability and channeling war time anxieties and tensions into questions of race, especially with the clear priorities it lent to elite business owners in worker rights negotiations (once a new low standard is created, everybody needs to bend down to meet it).
The exclusion was extremely symbolic. The barrios in which they lived, complete with dirt roads and shanty homes, were erected specifically for them from one day to the next around the employers for which they worked: their purpose and the lines that defined it physically clear. By adopting the role left by the lowest tier in society, that of low status, blue-collar workers, in a visual context of poverty, the braceros program lent weight to the idea among Americans of “Mexican degeneracy”. This plays into the ideology of a free market society which has characterized much of our progress during the 20th century, where structures are put in place on the basis of giving everyone an equal chance, such that if one is poor, it is one’s own fault and hence a result of unfavorable social characteristics or values, supporting a culture of contempt for poverty. Consequently, wearing a luxurious, extravagant zoot suit is a symbolic incoherence that unsettles the social reality, and it can be inferred that this could have been felt as a threat to the predominant social order.
Where norms dictated that the immigrant working class was to remain unseen, pachucos channeled the loudness of their uniform, walking and talking with such defiant confidence and infinite swag that even older, more traditional Mexican-Americans had something to say. The reality was that the zoot was a means to develop a distinct identity by individuals who shared the experience of living in an alienating society. Pachucos were considered a new cultural 'in-between', frowned upon by both sides; however, the struggle shared by proletariat groups of all ethnicities (even white, although the press refrained from reporting it) led to the formation of many gangs which provided a sense of belonging and a culture that revolved around style. Whether these gangs were seriously involved with the crime and cartels that ran rampant in Los Angeles, or whether they were simply disaffected youth looking for the same fun all regular teens look for, is still a subject of debate and unclear - it may very well have been both.
White zoot suiters
The riots began on the back of the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon case, where multiple Mexican-Americans were tried for the murder of a Latino kid that occurred during a clash between white and pachuco gangs. The ripples from this event tied in with the regular rounds made by drunken sailors and military personnel wandering around the city looking for confrontation with zoot suiters fueled a microcosm of hate and violence. The rebellious aesthetic and large abundance of fabric needed to make a zoot suit was perceived as a direct attack on American patriotism through its brazen flaunting of war fabric rationing efforts, part of a much larger group of national incentives that functioned on the mutual dependence and collective, coordinated action of a state of emergency.
Pachucos at the Police station, January 1942
Zoot Suit girls getting arrested
From 1941, social dynamics involving boundaries and conformity intensified - Japanese Americans’ cultural difference suddenly became too threatening, and their segregation into camps was not only accepted, but largely supported. Civilian patrols swept through the city, multiple military bases were established between Los Angeles and San Diego and beaches were equipped with anti aircraft guns – clearly, it was neither a time for bold declarations of individual identity nor for the carefree hedonism associated with jazz culture, that both directly and indirectly challenged an ideology of communal participation and strict obedience, swaying public perceptions into negative, anti-patriotic territory.
18 year old Noe and Joe Vasquez's zoot suits were ripped up during a beating by sailors, 1943
Young teens "de-zooted" and humiliated in public, 1943
Civilians and law enforcement, out of respect for men involved in the war effort and in large part due to anti zoot suit propaganda hammered in by the local press, closed a blind eye to the violent and unruly behavior of drunken servicemen on leave. As the number of servicemen escalated, so did social tensions with civilians, eventually deteriorating into an organized, direct attack on the Latin American community, zoot suit or no zoot suit.
On the night of May 30th, 1943, a group of zoot suiters retaliated in defense of a group of Mexican American girls targeted by some dozen soldiers looking for a good time, resulting in a ferocious beating which sent the soldiers scrambling back for safety at the Naval Armory. This particular incident ignited such a mess of distorted retellings and rumors of direct and open animosity that only fueled the violent, extensive scale of the riots, beginning a chain of retaliations from one group to another until the conflict escalated into a race war.
Mobs of servicemen in groups ranging from 50 to 150 men stormed into Mexican American neighborhoods and barrios, brutally attacking musicians, innocent jazz bar frequenters, and latino teens with clubs, belts, knives and tire irons. The zoot suiters still endured the worst of the violence; on June 7th, a Los Angeles newspaper printed a guide on how to “de-zoot” a zoot suiter in order for it to be burned, acting as a catalyst for the largest, most violent riot of them yet - 5,000 men made up on soldiers from as far away as Las Vegas showed up for a night of unconstrained massacre.
The riots ended the day after when the law finally stepped in, banning all sailors, soldiers and marines from entering Los Angeles, as well as declaring the wearing of zoot suits punishable by a 30 day jail sentence.
Undoubtedly in part due to the negative reputation it garnered during the riots, the zoot suit disappeared for most of the second half of the century until its revival as a historical marvel, making it an incredibly hard item to come by. LACMA broke curational 20th century menswear auction records when they spent $80,000 on a specimen that took almost ten years to find – clearly, you’d be hard tried to find one sifting through your standard thrift store.
For its inherently anti mainstream make up and definitions, the zoot suit defied absorption into the fashion replication machine for decades, and is one of the most transparent cases denoting fashion's inextricable link to wider social, political and cultural contexts, encompassing much more than silly trends if only one were to take a closer look.