The Politics of Style

Historian Kathy Peiss' new book traces the turbulent history of the zoot suit.
April 28, 2011

Last month, the Florida Senate approved a measure prohibiting students from wearing clothes that expose underwear or “indecently” reveal the body at school. The so-called “baggy pants” bill, now headed to the House floor, is one of a few proposed by state and local governments to target a fashion some politicians have labeled “nasty and dirty” and an “epidemic.” However critics like the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida counter that such bills are discriminatory because they disproportionately target minorities and criminalize fashion arising from black youth culture.

Although this might seem like a contemporary debate, historian Kathy Peiss says it has an antecedent in the zoot suit, popular in the late 1930s and ’40s. Comprising an oversized jacket, voluminous tapered pants, and accessories like fedoras and yard-long key chains, this fashion now primarily makes its appearance at costume parties and in Tom and Jerry reruns. But it once galvanized controversy among academics and politicians and even appeared to trigger violence in the 1943 “Zoot Suit Riots.” Peiss, the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History and Department of History chair, explores the trajectory of this fashion in her new book, Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style (forthcoming in June from the University of Pennsylvania Press).

“The zoot suit has been interpreted as a style that conveys political resistance on the part of mainly racial and ethnic minority youth—Mexican Americans and African Americans in particular,” Peiss says. “What I wanted to do in the book is analyze how we came to this interpretation and whether we should move so easily from a style to a political interpretation.”

Peiss, a historian of 20th-century American culture, gender history and history of sexuality, first became interested in the zoot suit while teaching a class about the “Zoot Suit Riots” at her previous position at the University of Massachusetts. In this incident, white sailors on shore leave armed themselves with makeshift weapons and coursed through the streets of downtown Los Angeles looking for young Mexican Americans wearing zoot suits. They viciously beat their victims and tore the clothes off their backs.

“It was essentially a race riot, and the summer of 1943 was full of them,” Peiss says.  “But in other places—Detroit, Harlem, and Beaumont, Texas, they were called that. The weird thing is that in L.A., it was named after an item of clothing, and this was one of the things that drew me to this project.”

Although it came to represent racial, economic and social tensions, the zoot suit, Peiss argues, didn’t begin as a political statement. It seems to have originated in Harlem in the mid- to late- 1930s. One reason young men adopted the flamboyant style was simply to stand out. In her research, Peiss came across one man who said he wore zoot suits because he “wanted to look like a diamond.” It was also worn to express group identity.

“Zoot suits were often associated with gangs—though not necessarily criminal,” Peiss explains. “It was more to show connection with other young men in your community.”

Because it was associated with the dance and music culture of the time—the jitterbug, jazz and swing music—zoot suits grew in popularity with youth from all backgrounds. Through the spread of American popular culture and U.S. involvement in World War II, the fashion eventually traveled around the world—to countries as diverse as South Africa, Trinidad and Russia—as a quintessentially American style.

“Unlike most American consumer products that are marketed,” Peiss says, “this is a case of a style that just takes off. No one is intentionally trying to circulate it, yet it has a kind of exuberance that appeals to young men in many parts of the world.”

However, Peiss’ book posits, several elements conspired to politicize the style. One was the government’s enactment of limitations on materials, including textiles, needed for the war effort. Clothing manufacturers subsequently could only produce narrow silhouettes, so even though the zoot suit wasn’t illegal, they weren’t allowed to produce its dimensions.

“In the minds of at least some people,” Peiss says, “wearing a zoot suit becomes an unpatriotic act.”

Additionally, the social and behavioral sciences at the time were developing an interest in decoding cultural symbols for what they might say about society and human psychology. Peiss points to efforts by a range of experts in disciplines such as social psychology, sociology and criminology to make sense of the zoot suit.

“Some of the psychoanalysts say the zoot suit is a sign of arrested sexual development,” Peiss explains, “and some of the sociologists and social psychologists link it to the literature on criminal gangs, claiming that young men who wear the fashion might be grappling with an identity crisis or an inferiority complex. A whole interpretive framework becomes placed on the phenomenon.”

“A style's meaning is produced not just by the people who wear it, but also by those who assess it –the manufacturer, advertising, popular culture, politicians and scholars, among others. Ultimately, this book is a plea for a more complicated way of understanding the symbol of clothing.”
– Kathy Peiss

The riots further politicized the zoot suit. Most of those arrested were Mexican Americans who were attacked. For some of these young men, the fashion symbolized resistance against oppression and an assertion of rights. On the part of the authorities, the local government and the press, however, zoot suits were interpreted as a sign of criminality.

“This article of clothing,” Peiss says, “becomes a sign of the ‘other.’ Zoot suits represent the earliest case that I’m aware of where there’s this judgment of an article of clothing that if you wear it, you are dangerous; you may be violent; you may be a criminal. I think this has carried on, for example, in the way that hip-hop and goth styles are sometimes interpreted.”

Peiss’ book advocates for caution in the way society reads signs and symbols and recognition of the complex ways in which their meanings are produced.

“A style’s meaning is produced not just by the people who wear it,” Peiss says, “but also by those who assess it—the manufacturer, advertising, popular culture, politicians and scholars, among others. Ultimately, this book is a plea for a more complicated way of understanding the symbol of clothing.”