Kathy Peiss


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

Cover Interview of August 28, 2011

The wide angle

Zoot Suit takes issue with historians and other scholars who interpret everyday life and culture largely as expressions of power and politics.

In this view, subcultural styles are a form of resistance to the social order.  This perspective originated in the 1960s, and I show how it grew out of the Chicano rights and black nationalist movements, which emphasized the cultural dimensions of social change, as well as the academic discipline of cultural studies.  The “politics of style” has become the chief framework for understanding the popular culture of marginalized youth.

I do not hold to an old-fashioned concept of culture as a domain separate from the political world.  I would argue, however, that many interpreters of style have imposed a political reading on this phenomenon.

In the case of the zoot suit, they assume that young black men and pachucosexpressed their opposition to discrimination, the government, capitalism, or the war in part through style.  This framework turns on its head the approach of the social scientists described above, yet by claiming a fixed meaning for the zoot suit and other youth fashion, they follow in their predecessors’ footsteps.

The historical evidence that the zoot suit is an expression of opposition, a “gesture of refusal,” is slight and ambiguous.  In fact, we have relatively little record of the understanding and intentions of those who wore this style.  A “fashion statement” does not yield its meaning so clearly.  My work examines when, and under what circumstances, the zoot suit has been understood as political, and when it has not.

I have always been interested in the importance of everyday rituals, styles, and interactions in history.  I have already written on early 20th century working-class leisure, the history of American beauty culture, and the rise of modern sexual mores.  Style seemed an arena in which a modern sense of personal and group identity could be articulated.

My interest in the zoot suit itself came out of an undergraduate course I taught that emphasized research methods and inductive approaches to history.  I posed a provocative question—could a fashion cause a riot?—and then we examined a host of primary sources, including newspapers, motion pictures, archival records, and court cases. After the course was over, I couldn’t let the subject go.  The “riddle” of the zoot suit, as Ralph Ellison called it, seemed a perfect vehicle to explore the many meanings of style.