The Zoot Suit Riots

Victims of the Zoot Suit Riots, Harold P. Matosian, Associated Press, public domain.

Zoot suits are suits with long jackets and baggy trousers that taper in at the ankle. Sometimes they are plain and only distinguished by their cut. Sometimes they are elaborately decorated and worn with a long watch chain. They originated within the US black community in the 1930s and spread to Hispanic, and Italian communities in the US, and were often worn by jazz artists.

The baggy Zoot Suit is less restrictive and easier to dance in. It’s also an item of ‘conspicuous consumption’, because the cut of a zoot suit uses more fabric than other contemporary suits of the time — that opulence, especially during the Second World War, a period of rationing, saw them labelled as unpatriotic.

The Zoot suit was the 1940s equivalent of dressing up as a Teddy boy in 50s England. Teds listened to rock and roll and wore similarly anti-austerity suits modelled on Edwardian outfits (an outward rejection of post-war austerity).

The 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in the US were sparked by hostility between military servicemen and the Hispanic community in Los Angeles. Servicemen armed with sticks and clubs, escorted by police, attacked Zoot Suitors who had been held responsible for attacking US servicemen. The riots had a clear racial element to them. Many Zoot Suiters were beaten up and their suits were stripped from them, burned, and even urinated on.

During the Second World War there were race riots in a number of other US cities. The State Un-American Activities Committee blamed the Zoot Suit Riots on Nazi spies agitating the Hispanic community.

Zoot suits are weirdly fascinating because of their outlandish cut and the political association with black, Latino and Hispanic self-expression. They are often depicted in contemporary paintings of the time. Malcolm X was a Zoot Suiter in his youth. They’re an early example of politicised clothing identified with a youth culture, their music, and spirit of rebellion, a precursor to the many other youth movements that have followed.

At a time during the Second World War when the US was fighting fascism in Europe, it was itself a racially divided country — and much the same thing can be said today.