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The birth of the Zoot Suit craze and the Zoot Suit riots that prompted an abrupt end to the out-of-control fad (1930’s)

Zoot suit in Los Angeles Museum of Art from 1942

What is a Zoot Suit?

A zoot suit, or zuit suit, has high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed, pegged trousers, and a long knee-length coat with wide lapels and wide padded shoulders. It was popularized in the 1930’s and its extravagant nature triggered a series of World War II riots known as the Zoot Suit Riots.

cab calloway wearing the ultimate zoot suit

Along with the tight cuffed big pants and knee length coat, most zoot suiters wore a felt hat with a long feather and pointy shoes with a long-chained watch dangling from the belt to below the knee and back to the side pocket. They were typically worn for special occasions. A writer described a scene with three zoot suiters this way:

What about these three boys, coming now along the platform, tall and slender, walking with swinging shoulders in their well-pressed, too-hot-for-summer suits, their collars high and tight about their necks, their identical hats of black cheap felt set upon the crowns of their heads with a severe formality above their conked hair? It was as though I’d never seen their like before: walking slowly, their shoulders swaying, their legs swinging from their hips in trousers that ballooned upward from cuffs fitting snug about their ankles; their coats long and hip-tight with shoulders far too broad to be those of natural western men.

The birth of the zoot suit craze

The inventor of the zoot suit is debated, variously attributed to Harold C. Fox, a Chicago clothier, Nathan Elkus, a Detroit retailer, and big band trumpeter Louis Lettes. The zoot suit moniker was first coined by Mexican American pachuros as part of their slang (with the duplicated “suit suit” pronounced with a Mexican accent as “zoot suit”). The suits were especially popular with lower-class youths in Harlem during the 1930’s where the ridiculously designed suits were known as “drapes”. They were also popular with Latin youth in the Swing and Jazz scene, but their popularity quickly spread to all youth, entertainers, and street thugs.

A fad is politicized

Since the zoot suites required a large amount of materials to manufacture, the U.S. War Production Board classified them as extravagances and stated that the materials used to make them were “wasted materials.” In response, zoot suiters wore them as declarations of freedom in an act of rebellion.

The Zoot Suit Riots

The Zoot Suit Riots began in Los Angeles during the first few days of June 1943. Over sixty zoot suiters, predominantly poorer Hispanic and black youth, were arrested and charged after violent fights between zoot suiters and servicemen on shore leave. The servicemen, upset that zoot suiters refused to put away their extravagant, wasteful suits and assist in the wartime effort, took out their frustration on the lower-class youth of Los Angeles. After the first weekend violence, rumors spread from military bases that servicemen were readying to form vigilante groups to seek retribution on the zoot suiters. According to the Washington Post:

“Disgusted with being robbed and beaten with tire irons, weighted ropes, belts and fists employed by overwhelming numbers of the youthful hoodlums, the uniformed men passed the word quietly among themselves and opened their campaign in force on Friday night.”

Police made no effort to stop the carloads of servicemen patrolling the streets. When zoot suiters were caught, they were beaten and stripped of their zoot suits and left helpless in the street.

“In one particularly vicious incident, a gang of drunken sailors rampaged through a cinema after discovering two zoot-suiters. They dragged the pachuco’s onto the stage as the film was being screened, stripped them in front of the audience and as a final insult, urinated on the suits.”

The Los Angeles Times reported:

“Zoot suits smoldered in the ashes of street bonfires where they had been tossed by grimly methodical tank forces of service men…. The zooters, who earlier in the day had spread boasts that they were organized to ‘kill every cop’ they could find, showed no inclination to try to make good their boasts…. Searching parties of soldiers, sailors and Marines hunted them out and drove them out into the open like bird dogs flushing quail. Procedure was standard: grab a zooter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up or burn them. Trim the ‘Argentine Ducktail’ haircut that goes with the screwy costume.”

zoot suiters lined up outside los angeles jail en route to court after feud with sailors june 9 1943

The second week of June witnessed the worst incidents of rioting and public disorder. A sailor was slashed and disfigured by a pachuco gang; a policeman was run down when he tried to question a carload of zoot-suiters; a young Mexican was stabbed at a party by drunken Marines; and a trainload of sailors was stoned by pachuco’s as their train approached Long Beach.

Street fights broke out daily in San Bernardino and over four hundred vigilantes toured the streets of San Diego looking for zoot-suiters, and many individuals from both factions were arrested.

The pleas for tolerance from civic authorities and representatives of the church and state had no immediate effect, and the riots became more frequent and more violent. A zoot-suited youth was shot by a special police officer in Azusa, a gang of pachucos were arrested for rioting and carrying weapons in the Lincoln Heights area; and twenty-five black zoot-suiters were arrested for wrecking an electric railway train in Watts. One thousand additional police were drafted into East Los Angeles to help stop the violence.

washington dc soldier inspecting a couple of zoot suits june 1942

The press coverage increasingly focused on the most “spectacular” incidents and began to identify leaders of zoot-suit style. On the morning of Thursday 10 June 1943, most newspapers carried photographs and reports on three ‘notorious’ zoot-suit gang leaders. Of the thousands of pachucos that allegedly belonged to the hundreds of zoot-suit gangs in Los Angeles, the press singled out the arrests of Lewis D English, a 23-year old black man, charged with felony and carrying a “16-inch razor sharp butcher knife;” Frank H. Tellez, a 22-year-old Mexican held on vagrancy charges, and another Mexican, Luis ‘The Chief’ Verdusco (27 years of age), allegedly the leader of the Los Angeles pachuco’s.

The Zoot Suit riots spread throughout the country

The Zoot Suit Riots spread from California to Arizona and Texas. Towards the end of the second week of June, the riots in Los Angeles were dying out. Sporadic incidents broke out in other cities, particularly Detroit, New York and Philadelphia, where two members of Gene Krupa’s dance band were beaten up in a station for wearing the band’s zoot-suit costumes; but these, like the residual events in Los Angeles, were not taken seriously. The authorities failed to read the inarticulate warning signs proffered in two separate incidents in California: in one a zoot suiter was arrested for throwing gasoline flares at a theatre; and in the second another was arrested for carrying a silver tomahawk.

The Zoot-Suit Riots had become a public and spectacular enactment of social disaffection. The Zoot Suit Riots resulted in zoot suits being mandated as illegal and eventually the fad died out and the zoot suit craze faded into history.

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

Zoot suiters lined up outside Los Angeles jail en route to court after feud with sailors June 9, 1943 via Library of Congress by Acme Newspictures with usage type - Public Domain
Washington, D.C. Soldier inspecting a couple of "zoot suits - June 1942 via Wikipedia by John Ferrell with usage type - Public Domain. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326]
Cab Calloway wearing the ultimate Zoot Suit via Smithsonian by AGIP - Rue des Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Zoot suit in Los Angeles Museum of Art from 1942 via Smithsonian Magazine with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)

Featured Image Credit

Zoot suit in Los Angeles Museum of Art from 1942 via Smithsonian Magazine with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)


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