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  • Zoot to Boot: The Zoot Suit as Both Costume and Symbol
  • Sarah Elizabeth Howard

Zoot youths, dressed in exaggerated coats and flamboyant attire, were attacked on a Los Angeles, California street on May 31, 1943. The aggressors, primarily sailors, descended upon the boys out for a night on the town, beat them, stripped them of their suits, and burned the costumes in the streets. The naked and bruised youths were left alone as the mob dissipated until the police began to round the youths up as hoodlums and juvenile deviants.1

Over the past several years, historical work has focused on Los Angeles’s Hispanic community, especially during the 1940s and the later Chicano movement. The Zoot Suit Riot and the Sleepy Lagoon murder, a lesser-known but equally important event, have received a great deal of attention from a diverse group of interdisciplinary scholars. They have given the suit a preeminent role in analysis of the Chicano movement.2 Some scholars have studied the event and the signature suit through a psychological lens,3 while others have approached the events and their symbols using traditional methodologies.4 In addition, scholars have striven to identify the unique and powerful racial politics that accompanied the suit.5 Beyond studies of 1940s American society, especially the Mexican-American community, examinations of the zoot suit appear in discussions of jazz and leisure6 and in cultural studies that explore such concepts as cultural capital, memory, and identity.7 These latter scholars argue that the suit itself and its use merit attention.

This essay examines the discourses of popular memory, cultural capital, symbol construction, and Chicano community. It explores who determines meaning, and why. It shows how values ascribed to the suit by minority groups as well as those accepted by majority constructed discourses of community. While the former group embraced the unique fashion as a symbol of belonging, the latter attacked it as a mark of difference.

The Birth of the Zoot Suit

Many conflicting stories surround the creation of the first zoot suit, but agreement exists about its importance in the development and self-identification of minority communities within the United States during the [End Page 112] 1940s and after. Chicago Defender columnist S. I. Hayakawa, in 1943, declared that the zoot suit expressed the rebellion by young people against drab slum life through the colorful costume that identified them as members of their own society.8

The zoot suit, as a distinctive fashion often bright in color, consisted of exaggerated shoulders and extra-long jackets, often reaching the subject’s knees, forming a characteristic triangular shape. Equally exaggerated pants joined these unique coats. The pleated slacks billowed from the waist and closed in tight at the ankle. The ankle cuffs were so small the foot could barely pass through.9 The suits were accessorized with equally distinctive and exaggerated watch chains,10 some hanging far below the knees (the sexual allusion of the oversized chain often hanging between the legs cannot be dismissed), and real leather-soled shoes. These shoes had varied meanings ascribed to them as the youths saw the soles as a sign of defiance and wealth and a symbol of status. During World War II, leather was rationed and the soles of these shoes were extremely thin. The average American, dedicated to home front activities and rationing, saw the shoes as an ostentatious misallocation of rationed goods. Many youths chose to double sole their shoes to ensure longevity, only further angering the rationing boards. The police viewed the double-soled shoes as a weapon to be used in a fight.11

The suit first gained fame in the 1940s as a part of the jazz craze. Connected closely with African-American counterculture, it was easily identified on the street, in the club, or anywhere the wearer chose to strut. The suit soon found a popular niche. Duke Ellington in 1941 recorded a powerful all-black musical revue, titled Jump for Joy, which employed satire, jazz music, and popular dance as it covered a wide range of pressing social topics. One of the many skits, “Made to Order,” took place in a tailor shop, where a young man orders...


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