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Zoot Suit

The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

By Kathy Peiss

Publication Year: 2011

ZOOT SUIT (n.): the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit.
—Cab Calloway, The Hepster's Dictionary, 1944

Before the fashion statements of hippies, punks, or hip-hop, there was the zoot suit, a striking urban look of the World War II era that captivated the imagination. Created by poor African American men and obscure tailors, the "drape shape" was embraced by Mexican American pachucos, working-class youth, entertainers, and swing dancers, yet condemned by the U.S. government as wasteful and unpatriotic in a time of war. The fashion became notorious when it appeared to trigger violence and disorder in Los Angeles in 1943—events forever known as the "zoot suit riot." In its wake, social scientists, psychiatrists, journalists, and politicians all tried to explain the riddle of the zoot suit, transforming it into a multifaceted symbol: to some, a sign of social deviance and psychological disturbance, to others, a gesture of resistance against racial prejudice and discrimination. As controversy swirled at home, young men in other places—French zazous, South African tsotsi, Trinidadian saga boys, and Russian stiliagi—made the American zoot suit their own.

In Zoot Suit, historian Kathy Peiss explores this extreme fashion and its mysterious career during World War II and after, as it spread from Harlem across the United States and around the world. She traces the unfolding history of this style and its importance to the youth who adopted it as their uniform, and at the same time considers the way public figures, experts, political activists, and historians have interpreted it. This outré style was a turning point in the way we understand the meaning of clothing as an expression of social conditions and power relations. Zoot Suit offers a new perspective on youth culture and the politics of style, tracing the seam between fashion and social action.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. ix

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pp. 1-14

In June 1943, in the midst of World War II, the city of Los Angeles erupted in violence. White sailors and soldiers, egged on by Anglo civilians, stopped streetcars and invaded movie theaters in search of young Mexican American men—known as pachucos—beating them, tearing their jackets, and stripping them of their trousers. ...

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1 Making the Suit Zoot

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pp. 15-42

When civil unrest and violence erupted in Los Angeles in June 1943, the zoot suit became a preoccupation of adult Americans across the country: What was the zoot suit and where had it come from? ‘‘Here’s what all the excitement’s about,’’ explained the newspaper PM, which ran a photographic...

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2 Going to Extremes

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pp. 43-75

What drew young men, and even some women, to the zoot suit? Most historical studies depict the zoot suit as a ‘‘street style,’’ devised by those whose experience of racial discrimination and prejudice led them to create distinctive sartorial responses to their situation. In these accounts...

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3 Into the Public Eye

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pp. 76-105

Although the penchant for extreme drapes began to appear toward the end of the 1930s, neither the mainstream press nor the entertainment industry paid much notice at first. Men’s Apparel Reporter, usually alert to trends in menswear, did not publish Clyde Duncan’s 1940 zoot-suit photograph until a year after it was taken. In early 1941...

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4 From Rags to Riot

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pp. 106-130

On the night of June 3, 1943, a band of fifty sailors armed themselves with makeshift weapons, left their naval base, and coursed into downtown Los Angeles in search of young Mexican Americans in zoot suits. For many weeks, name-calling and small-scale skirmishes between the uniformed men and the zoot suiters had escalated...

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5 Reading the Riddle

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pp. 131-156

Even as the Los Angeles riot was quelled, a war of recrimination erupted. Local and state officials began a series of investigations, while newspapers, opinion journals, and radio networks avidly covered the story in its aftermath, trying to account for the unrest on the home front. ...

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6 Zooting Around the World

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pp. 157-182

‘‘Some authorities feel that the only thing to do is to let the whole mysterious business wear itself out and disappear through inner exhaustion of its possibilities,’’ reported Agnes Meyer in the wake of the Los Angeles riot.1 In fact, it was much harder than those authorities thought to shrug off the zoot suit. ...

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pp. 183-191

Even as new clothing styles prevailed among postwar American youth, the zoot suit did not vanish. Into the 1950s and beyond, ordinary Hispanic, African American, and white working-class men continued to wear variations of drape jackets and pegged pants. What had been a controversial outfit during the war years now went largely unremarked. ...


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pp. 193-226


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pp. 227-236

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pp. 237-238

When I was a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts, I had the opportunity to participate in a method of teaching called ‘‘Inductive Approaches to History,’’ which explored vivid public controversies, used only primary sources, and taught students how to conduct historical research and analysis. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204599
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243376

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2011