“Fashion …has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” Coco Chanel
Once again Miz Chanel demonstrates her unnervingly intuitive understanding of fashion, that clothes are so much more than just a shield against the elements,that they give people a way to express themselves in a manner more accessible, more democratic than words. You don’t have to have a degree in anthropology to know that we have always used what we put on ourselves as a means to communicate everything from our spiritual beliefs, our politics, our social agendas, even sometimes the very personal struggle surrounding our very own identities. Clothes have been always used to label us, to assign and confine us to a group, whether it be a social or a power demarcation . So it comes as no surprise that groups of young, men, primarily Latino who in 1940s Southern California took this to a whole new level when they adopted the Zoot Suit as their weapon of choice in their struggle to establish their place in society.
The Zoot Suit has many elements: a flamboyant long coat with baggy pegged trousers, a pork pie hat, a long key chain and shoes with thick soles. Sometimes the more daring added a long feather and wore pointy shoes. Those who wore them called themselves, “pachucos” a term which referred to more than just their clothing, but to the lifestyle, the jargon and the musical tastes adopted by the young men and women who wore these suits. Most of these youngsters were offspring of immigrants who felt neither American or Mexican, who came from predominately lower class communities and who felt alienated from mainstream America. They were different anyway so why not exploit that and by doing so empower oneself as you strut around in what can only be described as these really amazing cool outfits. They were in effect a suit of armor, just a very fanciful one. After all they were at war with their own country, just a silent one where they were largely ignored by those with authority.
However there was a problem. Another war, a much larger ,more deadly one, was also taking place. And now that the US had entered World War 2 their lives were about to change. Fabric rationing was imposed which meant that the manufacture of Zoot Suits was forbidden as they used far too much material.All this meant was that a ton of bootleg tailors now sprang up in LA and NY so the pachucos continued to buy their suits thereby defying the ban. This in turn created a situation where now anyone wearing a Zoot Suit was deemed to be unpatriotic, un-American.
So we have America at war and because it was off the West Coast that they were first attacked, Pearl Harbour, they deployed a large number of , mostly white, servicemen to stations along the Pacific Coast. Thousands of men doing their patriotic duty and fighting for their country were now in very close proximity to a large number of mostly Mexican, and some African-American men, who were blatantly violating the authorities and as such were being, well, unpatriotic. It wouldn’t take someone with a degree in rocket science to guess where all this is going. Tensions that were strained were now pushed to a boiling point and what happened became known as the “Zoot Suit riots.”
What began as an altercation between a small group of pachucos and some servicemen triggered an almost all out offensive by the military against anyone caught wearing a Zoot Suit. Groups of servicemen, sometimes as many as 200, sometimes more, now roamed the streets of LA ready to attack and strip boys as young as 12 of their ‘anti-American clothing’. “We’re looking for Zoot Suits to burn” was the rally cry. Attacks occurred throughout the city. The conservative media condoned these actions as they were seen to be ridding LA of “miscreants” and “hoodlums.” The LA City Council even approved a resolution, although it was never passed into law, criminalizing the wearing of “zoot suits with real pleats withing the city limit of LA.” Eventually the Navy and Marine Corps intervened and confined their men to barracks. This brought the riots to an end in LA although by now they had spread to other parts of the US.
Afterwards when a clearer picture of the events emerged , the public, the military and the government finally condemned the actions of all those involved, particularly the LA Police and City Officials who had seemed quite happy to arrest only the pachucos. The powers that be then began to examine the facts and saw that perhaps the fighting was about more than just a few extra yards of fabric. Attempts were made to establish programs and services to help these young men find a place for themselves, to be accepted for who they are by society and the authorities.
In the 50s the Zoot Suit became emblematic for another disenfranchised group, young African-Americans, and through musicians like Thelonious Monk and Kid Creole inherited new meanings. Once again clothes were used to draw attention and give a voice to the powerless. These suits, which were pretty hard to miss, were used again as a way to be seen, as a way to say, ‘we are here and we will not be ignored.’ Malcolm X himself was a huge fan before switching to the more tailored look he is most often associated with. I am not sure what Chanel would have thought of such colourful attire but I think she would have appreciated that it was born out of an organic, deep-seated reaction to life and what was happening in these people’s lives.
“A killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.” Malcolm X on zoot suits.