In the mid-20th century in cities across the U.S., many young Chicanos and Black Americans donned themselves in zoot suits, oversized and extravagant fashion choices that required quite a bit of fabric. For Black and Latinx youth, zoot suits were a sign of their cultural pride, an expression of their sense of self-worth, and an act of disobedience that aimed to subvert white middle-class ideals. Interviews with former zoot suiters revealed their desire to resist white America’s negative depictions of them by dressing “to the nines,” as well as creating a sense of belonging within a culture where they were seen as outsiders. Zoot suits were also associated with other liberating cultural practices of the time, including jazz music and lindy hop dancing. “People’s everyday cultural practices, including fashion, music, and dance are often among the most common resources they use to garner strength, make their lives better, and shape the society in which they live.”12
In addition to resisting assimilation to whiteness, zoot suiters were also challenging the gendered roles of the WWII era. “The social practices and behavior of zoot suiters also often conflicted with gender norms regarding how young men and women should act [ . . . ] Male zoot suiters were often labeled by urban authorities, the media, and the general public as overly feminine for their constant attention to appearance, and female zoot suiters as too masculine for what was perceived as bold and very public behavior.”13
Zoot suiters were seen by white Americans as an affront, and zoot suiters of color were attacked by white mobs across American cities during this time, a violence that was state-sanctioned as police officers permitted or even enabled these assaults. Particularly notable were the June 1943 attacks on Chicano and Black youth in Los Angeles, which came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots, during which white sailors and soldiers attacked zoot suiters, stripping the youth of color of their zoot suits publicly. In the aftermath of this racist attack, Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution banning the wearing of zoot suits in public, punishable by time in jail.
Similar attacks took place in cities across the country. While living in Boston in the 1940s, a young Malcolm X was introduced to Black working-class subculture and along with it, to the zoot suit. Robin Kelley, in his 1994 book Race Rebels, argues the various ways that this period in Malcolm X’s life “was not a detour on the road to political consciousness but rather an essential element of his radicalization.”14
For Malcolm and his counterparts, the zoot suit was an expression of their identity and collectivity, one which resisted expectations from both white America and the Black bourgeoisie. As Robin Kelley writes, borrowing Malcolm X’s own words, “Seeing oneself and others ‘dressed up’ was enormously important in terms of constructing a collective identity based on something other than wage work, presenting a public challenge to the dominant stereotypes of the black body, and reinforcing a sense of dignity that was perpetually being assaulted.”15 Zoot suits were especially common at jazz clubs and dance halls, an extension of expressions of creativity and pleasure—expressions of freedom. Beyond that, the zoot suits and ballroom scenes also resisted politics of respectability and bootstraps mentalities, which were prevalent not only among white people, but also in Black middle-class communities.
The politics of zoot suits, though, went beyond both expressions of freedom and resistance to respectability—they were a political statement. In 1942, the War Productions Board instituted fabric rationing regulations, banning the manufacturing and sale of zoot suits. Therefore, buying and selling zoot suits was illegal and was done through underground networks. Those who wore zoot suits were deemed anti-American, especially young able-bodied men who were draft dodgers. “Thus when Malcolm donned his ‘killer-diller coat with a drape-shape, reat-pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell,’ his lean body became a dual signifier of opposition—a rejection of both black petite bourgeois respectability and American patriotism.”16 Malcolm X and his zoot suit wearing days exemplifies the multi-layered political significance that our fashion can have.
Zoot Suits and Fashion as Resistance - Questions, Connections, and Activities
- What does the history of the zoot suits teach us about WWII-era experiences of Black and Chicano youth in the U.S.? How did these experiences vary across geographic space and groups?
- What are the various ways that fashion has been used as a tool of resistance throughout U.S. history?
- Do fashion choices have a political impact today?
- The Fashion and Race Syllabus
- Watch short documentary about zoot suits and riots in Los Angeles (linked below in resources)
- Watch excerpts from Spike Lee’s, Malcolm X film depicting Malcolm X’s zoot suit wearing days
- Gallery walk and chalk talk of images throughout the 20th century of fashion as a tool of resistance (students interact with images and one another using post-its to write comments, questions, and responses to one another) — use the Fashion and Race Syllabus (linked below in resources) for ideas of images
- Read and discuss article about the history of protest fashion (linked in resources below)
- After analyzing the resources above, debate/discuss whether fashion choices have a political impact today