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A F T E R M AT H E ven 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. Yet the zoot suit retained an unusual symbolic charge that was reignited by the radical politics of the 1960s and 1970s. The ‘‘Chicano power’’ movement revived the pachuco as a heroic and mythological figure, dressed in zoot-suited splendor. Activists and academics attributed new meanings to the style: What social scientists of the 1940s had assayed as a sign of social deviance and psychological disorder transmuted into an emblem of resistance and an oppositional subculture. The zoot suiter became an early ancestor in a genealogy of politicized style and youth subcultures since the mid-twentieth century. * * * The figure and style of the zoot suit continued to catch the eye of many young black men after World War II. Watching Harlem’s Easter parade in 1946, columnist Dan Burley commented on the ‘‘zoot suits, reet pleats, glad rags, sharp tops and ready Mr. Freddy combinations in all sizes,’’ and quoted singer Pearl Bailey, ‘‘90 percent of us dressed wrong but were in the right town.’’ He saw in the parade of Easter fashion something more: black people responding to racial discrimination and 184 Aftermath violence with laughter and stylishness, ‘‘the grandest display of glory, glamour, and revival of life.’’ Time magazine reported that young Baltimoreans known as ‘‘drapes’’ lit up dances dressed in long, loose jackets and pegged pants. The city had banned members of this group from recreation centers if their cuffs were too tight, with one official explaining that ‘‘extreme dress leads to poor behavior.’’ Protesting the ban, the young men denied they were zoot suiters, whom they identified with draft dodgers and street-corner bums. ‘‘A drape is a human, like anybody else,’’ came the response. ‘‘It’s just sharp dressing.’’ By 1950, African American fashion arbiters declared the extreme style in decline; as the Atlanta Daily World declared, ‘‘Zoot suits are out for men.’’1 Nevertheless , the drape suit never disappeared from African American communities . It continues to appear in shop windows in Philadelphia, for example, in downtown commercial districts and neighborhood clothing stores; on an evening stroll, in Sunday church, and in dance halls, African American men of a certain age still dress down to the bricks in vivid colors, stylish oversized jackets, and pegged pants. For them, the zoot suit remains a living aesthetic tradition, the epitome of cool, a source of pleasure gained in wearing a style that continues to turn heads. Strikingly, many young, white working-class men, especially from Southern and Eastern European ethnic backgrounds, wore vestiges of the zoot suit through the 1950s. Pegged pants in particular spread widely among high school boys, as historian William Graebner has documented for Buffalo, New York. The press saw little distinctive in the style by then and paid scant attention to white working-class youths wearing it. Life ran a feature in 1954 on the new ‘‘high style’’ among teens that included pegged pants; their interest may have been sparked by the more visible teddy boy phenomenon in England. Instead, it was the newer fads among middle-class teens and a fixation with the style of juvenile delinquency that garnered the most public attention—jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets. Those who grew up in cities in the 1950s, however—in Philadelphia , New York, and Detroit—remember the appeal of the zoot suit, and how it persisted well after its heyday. The style still conveyed an aura of Aftermath 185 the cool hipster, necessary wear among certain cliques or for going out at night; it remained a flashpoint for parents who associated it negatively with African Americans and juvenile delinquents.2 Yet by the 1960s, it was gone. For Mexican Americans, the zoot suit summoned a deeper set of meanings, originally forged in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riot. The style had lived on in popular memory, passed from older siblings and relatives to youngsters who eagerly glamorized pachucos. One Mexican American, born in 1938 and interviewed fifty-one years later, had come of age in the barrio of East Los Angeles in the 1950s. Some of his uncles were pachucos, he recalled, and when he was a...


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