History of American Fashion
History of American Fashion
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War in History of American Fashion

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of War

Zoot Suits: The Trend that Sparked a Riot

The zoot suit, a flamboyant and controversial style of the 1930s and '40s, was characterized by a long coat, a large hat, and baggy pants tightly cuffed at the ankle. It emerged in part from the jazz music scene, in which black and white musicians mingled in defiance of segregation laws and minorities found a venue for self-expression. During World War II—when citizens were forced to ration clothing in order to preserve scarce materials for the war effort—the expensive zoot suit, made from yards and yards of material that might otherwise have been used for military uniforms, seemed extravagant in every way. Some black men in Harlem, New York (among other cities), and Hispanics in Los Angeles wore the zoot suit as a banner of style and wealth. Yet the suit also served as an emblem of minority defiance amidst a racist society. Meanwhile, other blacks and Hispanics donned military uniforms to prove their own sense of patriotism. And the suits were not just controversial among whites in Los Angeles and New York; many conservative Hispanic parents disapproved of their children's flashy fashion statements. This was partly because the zoot suit was considered neither Mexican nor American but something in-between, and because many parents feared that children who dressed in zoot suits were also running with pachuco gangs (a pachuco was an adolescent Mexican-American person from the streets). Parents, understanding the prevalence of white racism in American society at the time, would have known that such attention-getting and defiant garb might attract negative and even violent attention from self-styled patriotic vigilantes looking to start a fight. At the time, minorities were expected to assume a passive, even submissive guise in every aspect of their behavior and appearance. But the zoot suit embodied the very opposite: it was bold, noticeable, and worn with a confidence and swagger that whites seldom permitted or tolerated in minorities.

Just as those parents had feared, violence soon erupted between zoot-suited Hispanics and whites in the "city of angels," Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles felt the social impacts of World War II as powerfully as any American city; by the summer of 1943, more than 50,000 sailors were stationed in Los Angeles awaiting deployment for combat. Often made edgy by their impending fight, many got liquored up to kill time during shore leave. These Navy men often found themselves in close proximity to the Mexican-American barrios of Los Angeles, regularly traversing these neighborhoods on nights out. They arrived amidst a climate of racial tension, as local whites expressed concern over the recent surge in Mexican immigration. Many whites had themselves just migrated to southern California from the South and the desperately poor Midwestern "Dust Bowl" during the recent Depression. They feared the job competition that Mexican-Americans represented, and they still associated American citizenship and loyalty with racial identity. Suspicious of their Hispanic neighbors' national loyalty, many whites were already on edge about a possible Japanese attack on the West Coast. California was in the midst of forcibly interning its Japanese-American citizens, a practice that only reinforced public notions that racial and cultural differences could be equated with betrayal or treason. Mexican Americans were the largest minority group in Los Angeles, and they quickly drew considerable attention and animosity.

Barrios were ghettoized ethnic neighborhoods established by the native Hispanic population of California, but expanded during World War II after tens of thousands of contract laborers from Mexico came to the state as part of the government's bracero program in 1942. Braceros were imported to alleviate labor shortages in agriculture and domestic industries, but they could not become citizens and could be deported without warning. Clearly the opportunities created by wartime came with their own limitations. Mexican-American youths growing up in these conditions had to forge a new identity; many had never lived in Mexico at all, yet they were discriminated against in American society, cut off from the prosperity of wartime America, and confined to ethnic ghettoes plagued with poverty. Not all Mexican-American men who found a sense of pride and expression through the zoot suit were gang members. Some Mexican-Americans who were in gangs, like the violent Chicano brotherhood La Purissima (or White Fence), actually ridiculed the zoot suiters as juvenile dandies.166

Nonetheless, between the overcrowded, impoverished barrios and the anxious, resentful sailors, racial conflicts seemed almost inevitable. Nor should racial violence have come as any surprise, given the recent treatment of Mexican Americans in the Los Angeles press. Popular stereotypes of "Mexican hoodlums" became widespread after the Sleepy Lagoon case of 1942, in which seventeen Hispanic men—suspected gang members—were tried and convicted for the murder of 22-year-old farmworker José Díaz. The murdered man's body was discovered near a popular swimming hole that local Mexican-American youth had dubbed "Sleepy Lagoon"; it was the only place they could go to swim and socialize, since they were segregated from the public pools. In response to the discovery of Díaz's body, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) rounded up more than 600 Mexican Americans, most of them identified only by their complexions and their zoot suits; 22 were indicted and 17 convicted on various charges related to the murder. The trial itself was a travesty of justice, involving a deeply biased presiding judge and a prosecutor who actually pointed to the defendants' clothes and haircuts as evidence of their guilt. To reinforce this accusation, in a clear indication of the power that clothing and appearances could convey, prosecutors prevented the defendants from getting haircuts or from receiving packages of clean clothes during the first several weeks of the trial.167 Trial witnesses from the Sheriff's Department testified before the grand jury that zoot-suited Mexican-Americans were racially predisposed to utterly "disregard...the value of human life."168 In October 1944, the Second District Court of Appeals voted unanimously to overturn the Sleepy Lagoon convictions, freeing the twelve men who remained in prison (all convicted of first- or second-degree murder) were released after more than two years of incarceration. But the damage had already been done; since the summer of 1942, Hispanic youth had become a target of both journalists and police, ratcheting up interracial tension in Los Angeles.

In the summer of 1943, that tension erupted into a spasm of full-fledged violence that became known as the Zoot Suit Riots. In one incident, a crowd of more than 500 sailors and white civilians attacked Mexican-American youths leaving a dance in a Venice Beach ballroom because the whites heard a rumor that "Zoots" had stabbed a sailor. Later, on 30 May, a sailor named Joe Dacy Coleman was knocked unconscious in a street fight with young men in zoot suits. Four days later, a mob of more than 50 sailors sought revenge. Streaming out of the Naval Armory with weapons that ranged from tire irons to clubs and knives, they prowled the streets looking for zoot suiters to rough up. They even invaded movie theaters, turning on the house lights in mid-screening to reveal Chicano youths in the crowd. The mob's first victims, guilty of nothing but bad being in the wrong place at the wrong time, were twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys who suffered beatings. Mexican-American adolescents responded the following evening by driving past the Armory and shouting epithets at the guards. That night, rampaging sailors caravanned miles across the city, into the heart of the Mexican-American barrios of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, where they indiscriminately assaulted zoot-suited youths.

As the Zoot Suit Riots threatened to engulf Los Angeles in full-fledged racial warfare, the city's media and police did little to help the situation. One city newspaper actually offered its readers advice on how to "de-zoot" a zoot suiter: "Grab a zooter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up or burn them."169 For a full week, as mobs of dozens and even hundreds of sailors scoured Los Angeles's streets on foot, hunting "Mexicans," the LAPD did little if anything to stop their rioting and protect the city's Mexican-American population. One policeman explained that he had served in World War I, and he and his colleagues "represented public opinion" and were not about to "pick on kids in the service."170

Meanwhile, rioting whites began targeting all Mexican Americans, regardless of their attire; at one point a group of Chicano musicians exiting the Aztec Recording Company were attacked, even though they all were adults and none wore zoot suits. The riots peaked on 7 June 1943, when a mob of more than 5,000 whites—which now included not only sailors and marines but also army soldiers who drove in from as far away as Las Vegas—assembled downtown before moving out to attack both the Mexican Americans of East LA and the African-Americans of Watts. The zoot suits may have initially provided a catalyst for stereotyping and easily identifying Mexican-American youth as criminals and gangsters, but the violence that erupted quickly extended to all minorities regardless of their choices in clothing. The conflicts did not subside until senior military officers barred all servicemen from going out in Los Angeles and authorized the shore patrol to arrest any disorderly personnel.171 At the same time, the Los Angeles City Council removed the proximate cause of the rioting by banning the wearing of zoot suits in public, instituting a 30-day jail term for anyone who violated the new rule.

In the aftermath of the Zoot Suit Riots, an investigatory committee created by California Governor Earl Warren subsequently concluded that the press and the Los Angeles Police Department fueled the violence in Los Angeles through race-baiting headlines and police brutality, although juvenile delinquency among Hispanic youth was also pinpointed as a major causal factor. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron agreed that juvenile delinquents and white Southerners were the major causes for the violence, but unconvincingly denied that racial prejudice was a factor.

The zoot suit itself didn't truly cause the riots that rocked Los Angeles in the summer of 1943; that violence exploded out of deep-seated conflicts over race, class, culture, patriotism, conformity, dissidence and deference. But the zoot suit served as a powerful marker of difference, an aggressive sartorial challenge to the drab military uniforms that signified a supposedly unified national war effort. The Zoot Suit Riots proved that fashion can reveal deep cracks in American society, sometimes with violent and devastating results.

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