War, Politics & Suits: The Zoot Suit

An educational series by Lady Ariel

Throughout modern history fashion has not only been a form of utility and self expression, but has played a large role in how society relates to events of the day.  In this series we will explore several examples of how fashion (and more specifically, suit-wear) has evolved in response war and culture, and been a signature of certain political movements.

Part I: Liberty, Disorder, and the Forbidden
When considering the “zoot suit,” many people simply think of a fairly silly looking, comically oversized and colorized pimp outfit.  In actuality, this late-1930’s and 1940’s style of men’s suit marked a major cultural divide between Black and Latino youths and white American servicemen. While the origins of its name are speculative, the Oxford English Dictionary theorizes that “zoot” is just linguistic variation of “suit.” The zoot suit itself features an extra long and baggy jacket and very baggy, high waisted trousers with a cuffed peg leg.
A young Malcom X described the zoot suit as “a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.”
During World War II, the wearing of this style of suit became associated with general delinquency and rebellion against the law and governmental authority.  What it really signified to the culture at large was a growing subculture of young Mexican-American and Black men, who were subject to much social and racial discrimination in Los Angeles and Southern California. The outward symbol of the sub-culture, the zoot suit itself made the members of this scene, self-termed, “pachuco,” recognizable and easily vilified. 
In 1942, Limitation Order L-85 hit the country by storm, drastically changing women’s fashion and further maligning the zoot-suiter’s already ill reputation. This edict from the War Production Board placed strict regulations on the use of wool and other fabrics, in hope of conserving material and freeing up resources for the war effort. This law essentially prohibited the manufacture of zoot suits, and legitimate tailors stopped the production of the extravagant garments. After this mandate, zoot suit wearers were viewed as unpatriotic, as they were blatantly flouting the rationing laws. Many violent clashes between zoot-suiters and white servicemen stationed on the Pacific coast resulted, clashes we now dub the Zoot Suit Riots.
In an insightful musing, celebrated Mexican writer, poet, and diplomat Octavio Paz said of the zoot-suiters, “[they are] a symbol of love and joy or of horror and loathing, an embodiment of liberty, of disorder, of the forbidden.”