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Paper Topic:

Zoot suit





The Zoot Suit : Fashion Statement in More Ways Than One

Fashion as a reflection of current and social issues is not a new concept . In Old England , fashions were dictated by the values of the monarch on the throne . Sexually repressed Victorian England saw fashions that centered round voluminous , layered skirts as the mode set by Charles Worth and stiff formal wear for the men . The hippie era of the 60 's brought colorful flower emblems on fringe vests and scarves worn by the anti-war


If there however , was one fashion trend that stood out the loudest and became truly symbolic in American cultural history , that was the Zoot suit of the 1930 's and 40 's

The Los Angeles Daily News best sums up the zoot suit "There is no mistaking a zoot suit once you see it , there being nothing subtle in the style (Daniels

Regarded as the "rebellious garment " of the era , the zoot suits were made up of high-

waisted , wide pegged trousers , and a long coat with wide lapels and exaggerated padded

shoulders . Loud as they may be , they also stood out as symbols of the fight for ethnic identity

(Craik 39

There are many theories as to the origins of the zoot suit . Some have said that the great band leader , Cab Calloway was the one who popularized the suit on his onstage performances and during his film "Stormy Weather " Others have pointed out that Clark Gable also wore the same kind of suit on "Gone with the Wind (White , and White 249

One theory cites Duke Ellington 's musical "Jump for Joy (1942 ) that featured players wearing zoot suits and had songs that centered on racial pride and criticized white racism . It has been suggested that the zoot suit wearers , specifically the Mexican-Americans and Filipino-Americans , simply identified with Ellington 's anti-racism and thus donned the same suits used in his production

One of the more common beliefs however , is that the Zoot Suit 's origins finds itself in African-American history . In the book "Stylin : African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit (1998 by Shawn White and Graham White , they posited that the practice of slavery in earlier times gave birth to a culture in the African-American community that sought to create individual self-expression and determination through movement and clothing

It was oppressive times in those days when the whites aggressively imposed their will on

Negro slaves . The slaves were required to appear submissive "non-threatening " and plain

as "befitting their station (Tyler 630 ) The blacks however , rebelled and sought to assert their own humanity and individuality in their own indirect way against the white supremacists using distinctive tome of movement , grooming and physical carriage

Sunday mornings and church would see the blacks dressed up in the appearance of free people complete with the right to adorn themselves in the way they chose . This threatened and caused tension with the white community who viewed such actions and extravagant clothes by the slaves as arrogant , pretentious and conduct unbecoming of slaves . The white people believed that the blacks especially the slaves were not entitled to such arrogant and pretentious display of identity . Much as the whites , however , did their best to stamp out the growing determination of the blacks to express their selves and gain the dignity of having identity

Daring the threat of punishment from the slave owners , blacks both free and slave , would determinedly slip away from their huts and visit with loved ones , performed their own dances , congregated for Church , and fought for their right to groom and have time to themselves

New Orleans was one of the cities where the African culture made its presence so vividly particularly in the 1920 's (Tyler 630 ) Negro jazz performers from Memphis and Atlanta would gather together with the rest of black community in New Orleans to dance , socialize , perform , and strut around during the annual Mardi Gras . Special grooming and hair styles were devised by Madame C .J . Walker (White , and White 169 ) that gave black people "looks " that can best be described as upscale or middle-class "Black Beauty " was celebrated in various beauty contests and pretty baby contests . The blacks also became known for their particular "walk " where every window shopping experience was turned into a virtual fashion show where the blacks showed off their bodies and clothes

All these culturally assertive forms of rebellion against the White supremacy culminated in what came to be known as the "Zoot Suit " culture in the 1940 's

The zoot suit became a fashion statement and symbol for the minorities in the United States . Aside from the African-Americans , minority groups such as the Mexican-Americans and Filipino-Americans started donning the extravagant ensemble as a symbol of their individuality and protest against the limitations and discrimination imposed by the White society

Most of the whites were angered with the wearing of the zoot suit Besides the perceived "upstart " attitude of the minorities , those years were war years and fabric was very limited in supply and therefore conserved . To them , the extravagant suit demanded fabric that was very much in short supply and thus , the wearing of it can very well be construed as "unpatriotic

In some cities , there were riots where the African-American and Mexican-American zoot suit wearers or "zooters " were physically assaulted and stripped of their clothes by the Whites . Such riots came to be known as the "zoot-suit riots

Zooters were attacked in cities as close as San Diego and as far as Toronto , Canada . American and Canadian servicemen beat up and stripped the wearers of the zoot suit . In one instance , for being mistaken as "zooters " two members of Gene Krupa 's band were beaten up by sailors on the Philadelphia subway . In Baltimore , the local police patrolled the black district on the lookout for gang members who wore the suit (Daniels

Los Angeles was the venue for the largest and more frequent of such riots where sailors and army men chased down and beat zooters and tore the clothes off their backs for being "unpatriotic " and "disloyal immigrants in June of 1943

In a Time magazine letter , a soldier stationed in Kearney , Nebraska explained his hostility and that of many Americans to the zoot-suited youth : To a soldier who has been taken from his home and put in the Army , the sight of young loafers of any race , color , creed , religion or color of hair loafing around in ridiculous clothes that cost 75 to 85 per suit is enough to make them see red . You know they are loafers because no business house would allow them to work in such fantastic outfits (Daniels

It is a disturbing to note that the white citizens of Los Angeles and such other cities created an environment where the beating and stripping of zooters of colored race was practically condoned . To the whites , the colored minority had no right to aggressively assert themselves . Trumped up charges of violating war dress codes or molestation of soldiers girlfriends were leveled against the zooters . It seemed that any excuse to punish the zooters for the gall to wear such flamboyant and pretentious clothing was good enough (Daniels ) Modern-day critics have advanced the thinking that American society 's inability to accept and resolve complex issues at that time have made the white people somewhat focus all their anger towards a symbol that to them , denoted the rising rebellion of the minorities .the zoot suit

This has become such as issue that in 1942 , the Los Angeles City Council actually passed a law outlawing the zoot suit . There have even been calls to prosecute the makers of such suits as they violated rationing laws with the production of such fabric-extravagant clothing . The wearers of the zoot Suit became scapegoats for every bad thing that ever happened . Few were willing to admit that there were racial motivations against the Mexican , Filipino and African Americans . Every bad thing that ever happened was equated with the zoot suit . It is interesting to note however , that white zooters , were generally left unharmed

Despite all this , the colored zooters however , continued to fight for their right to strut , perform jazz music and parade in the streets , and wear their sassy suits (Tyler 630

"We [pachucos] were a minority group of a minority group . So , in a way we were challenging cops by being with two or three friends and dressing sharp . But in those days , I was prepared for any sacrifice to be able to dress the way I wanted to dress . I thought it looked sharp and neat , and it was the style " - Cesar Chavez , Autobiography of La Causa (Daniels

It 's been a long time since the last of the "zoot-suit " riots , indeed in these times of

revival , the zoot suit has been making a comeback along with the wild jitterbug and lively swing

dances (Schaverein , and Kelly 28

Yet to some , the zoot suit remains much more than just a costume for dances or that "wild-and-outlandish-suit-that-grandpa- has

For people who have experienced and suffered the oppression of the formerly limiting and narrow-minded times , the zoot suit was a badge .a badge they wore proudly in the assertion of their freedom as individuals and their right as human beings to be on equal footing as every other human being whatever country of their origin or color their skin may be

Works Cited

HYPERLINK "http /www .questiaschool .com /PM .qst ?a o d 8 " Craik Jennifer . The Face of Fashion : Cultural Studies in Fashion . New York Routledge , 1994 . Questia . 22 Sept . 2007 br

HYPERLINK "http /www .questiaschool .com /PM .qst ?a o d Daniels , Douglas Henry "Los Angeles Zoot : Race "Riot " the Pachuco , and Black Music Culture " The Journal of Negro History 82 .2 (1997 : 201 Questia . 22 Sept . 2007 . HYPERLINK "http /www .questiaschool .com /PM .qst ?a o d Schaverein , Tracy , and Amanda Kelly "Back in the Swing Dust Down Your Zoot Suit and Get Ready to Jitterbug as the Roaring 40s Make a Comeback " Sunday Mirror (London , England ) 23 May 1999 : 28 . Questia . 22 Sept . 2007

HYPERLINK "http /www .questiaschool .com /PM .qst ?a o d " Tyler Bruce M "Stylin : African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit " Journal of Southern History 66 .3 (2000 630 . Questia . 22 Sept . 2007 br

HYPERLINK "http /www .questiaschool .com /PM .qst ?a o d 5 " White Shane , and Graham White . Stylin : African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit . Ithaca , NY : Cornell University Press , 1998 . Questia . 22 Sept . 2007 br (Surname ) PAGE 1 ...

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