Kathy Peiss

 

On her book Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

Cover Interview of August 29, 2011

In a nutshell

Zoot Suit is a history of one of the most famous “street styles” of the 20th century.  With its broad shoulders, tapered long jacket, pegged pants, and swinging key chain, this extreme male fashion caught the imagination of many young Americans in the World War II era.  As the United States mobilized for war, it also became a highly controversial style, especially as civil unrest broke out in Los Angeles in 1943, known to this day as the “zoot suit riot.”

In my book, I explore what this exaggerated fashion meant in the war years and after.  I show how this style took hold among young men, circulated rapidly in the popular culture, and then became caught up in the racial politics of the home front.  As it did so, the zoot suit became a symbol, but an enigmatic one.  The style eluded the efforts of experts and academics to fix its meaning—then and now.

The zoot suit started in the streets and dancehalls of Harlem and spread rapidly around the country.  Those who wore the zoot suit loved its spectacular look, how it moved on the body, and the way it drew public attention.  It was especially popular among African Americans and Mexican Americans (known as pachucos), but young men of Filipino, Japanese, Jewish, and Italian background also embraced the style.  It appealed to middle-class jitterbugging teens, workers newly flush from defense jobs, and jazz musicians.

 


rorotoko.com

Zoot suiters and soldier at a 1942 Woody Herman concert in Washington, D.C.  (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34-011543-D DLC.)

 

The zoot suit entered into public notice when government regulators began to curb the use of textiles needed for the war effort.  Although to some this rendered the zoot suit an unpatriotic style, many found it a fit subject for humor and popular culture.  They celebrated its youthful spirit and wacky individualism, with some even linking the style to the American way of life.  (For contrasting popular images of the zoot suit, see Disney’s Spirit of ‘43 and MGM’s 1944 cartoon, The Zoot Cat.)

I examine how this style became identified with a menacing “underclass” of poor blacks and pachucos, especially in Los Angeles, where the sensational press hammered at zoot-suited gangs and criminals supposedly threatening the city.  During the zoot suit riot, servicemen coursed through the streets of Los Angeles seeking Mexican American youths in zoot suits, beating them, and stripping the clothes off their backs.  Race riots occurred in many places during the summer of 1943, but only in Los Angeles was a clothing style blamed as the instigator.  This is both odd and remarkable, and one of the things the book does is explain why there was such a fixation on the political implications of the zoot suit.

In the aftermath of the riot, everyone wanted to understand its symbolism.  Social and behavioral scientists attributed a host of dire psychological and societal meanings to the style.  To some it indicated homosexuality and an inferiority complex, to others, a reaction against racial prejudice and discrimination.  This orientation to reading the social symbolism of clothing and style, sparked by the zoot suit, continues to inform how we think about youth subcultures and fashion more generally.

The zoot suit also traveled around the world, during and after World War II, appearing everywhere from Mexico, Canada, and Trinidad, to France, the Soviet Union, and South Africa.  Eventually, a style that began among poor black “sharpies” in Harlem—and became seen as an alien, dangerous style—became a touchstone of American culture for young people in many places.