Monday, June 22, 2009

Whipped Up, Jitterbuggin' Brown Eyed Men: The Significane of the Zoot Suit

This is adapted from a piece that I wrote some time ago.

It has been said that much can be inferred about a man based upon what he carries with him—clothing included. Just as one might metaphorically take a walk in someone else’s shoes, analyzing the shoes themselves might likewise enlighten the situation. If how people dress says something about who they are, then Douglas Daniels’s assertion that “zoot marked the emergence of a specific urban identity” suggests that the zoot suit itself symbolized a specific departure from traditional social and cultural mores, to a representation of “concrete experience: growing up poor, urban, and often colored in the U.S. . . . [and thus] symbolized rebellion against society.”[1] That formation of a sub-culture, as symbolized in the zoot suit, occurred during a period of supposed nationalism is strikingly problematic. American nationalism of the 1940s was largely an Anglo-Saxon-American nationalism. Zoot culture thus arose as the product of a large minority’s alienation and self-actualization. In this way, both positive and negative factors account for the emergence of the zoot suit.

The term “zoot” or variations thereof (e.g. “zoot suit”) is ripe with connotation, but ambiguous in denotation. For the purposes of this study, “zoot” will be used both in reference to the image invoked of a distinct clothing fashion as well as the sub-culture associated with those who wore such garbs. [2]To understand how a style of dress contains such deep cultural meaning, one must understand the historical context from whence the zoot suit emerged, that is the early 1940s. America’s post-World War II memory tends to focus on the ties that bound its people during one of its most intense international struggles, but the zoot suit phenomenon and the controversy surrounding it at the time demonstrates clearly that the home-front was not always, if at all, so felicitous. Instead of uniting all Americans in a common endeavor, the conflict abroad, with its tendency to promote an “either you are with us or against us” mentality, often put minorities of race and ideology on the fringe.[3] Metaphorically, what was not apple pie became sauerkraut or sushi. Alienated by race and class from mainstream white America, black and Latino-American youths forged identities of their own, and thus castigated for “generally being more aggressive than a colored minority had a right to be."[4]

Nationalism is the hubris of a people. In its purest (or perhaps foulest) form, nationalism expounds the supremacy of a people over all others. It tends to classify people in bulk, and often adds a qualified or intense xenophobia. In times of war, such arrangements fit nicely in the popular mentality. Nations can boast “we are this, but they are that.” In the United States, nationalism usually accompanies a certain paradox due to its multiethnic demographics. In response to this, people have often referred to the United States as a great “melting pot,” in which diverse peoples become one. However, throughout its history, the United States has struggled with the immigration and assimilation of foreign identities, and whenever any specific minority group does not appear to conform, strife erupts.[5] This is what happened in the zoot suit and general race riots of the 1940s. Black and Latino-Americans, easily discernible by skin color, having been alienated by the nationalist climate of World War II, distinguished themselves with “a form of visual protest [for being] denied equality by the establishment. [6] Unaccepted by the majority, they developed their own expression of ego, like Stephen Crane’s man who “said to the Universe / ‘Sir, I exist!’”[7] Thus, while the nationalistic fever of World War II did “impede the perfectly normal process of group identity,” that blacks and Latino’s were not generally welcomed into the fold prior to and even after World War II must not be overlooked.

Since “zoot suiters” rejected prevailing social mores, many accused them of anti-patriotism [8] This goes back to the “us” and “them” mentality discussed previously. Ostensibly, zoot suiters were unpatriotic because they wore excessive fabric during a time of material conservation. [9] However, the hatred of the suit and those who wore it more reflected the latent—or not so subtle—animosity towards those who, in the language of the time, would not “Straighten up and fly right.”[10] Whites supposedly rioting against the zoot suit did not assault other whites who wore the despised clothing, and when violence broke out, those arrested were overwhelmingly colored. [11]

Whites hated zoot suits because zoot suiters were typically minorities who refused to play Uncle Tom or Sancho Panza. The phenomenon came to fruition during a time of intense nationalism, which invoked a sentiment that x is American, and whatever is not x is not American. Syllogistically, the formula is as follows: All people who dress and act according to prevailing (white) attitudes are good Americans. Zoot suiters are not people who dress and act according to prevailing (white) attitudes. Therefore, zoot suiters are not good Americans. [12] The zoot suit in fact was the result of reason following contemporary white attitudes, for in spite of black and Latino efforts, whites refused to recognize them as good Americans no matter how they dressed. On one side, it was a positive move for a struggling minority to establish an ego. On the other side, it was the negative result of years of racism, neglect, and second-class citizenship. Many of the sons of the men who first donned the zoot suit would be even more assertive in the 1960s through organized protest groups, such as the SCLC, SNCC, and later the Black Panthers. [13] The moral here is that nationalism breeds division as much as it does unity in a people, and the zoot suit, zoot suiters, and the zoot suit riots were living, historical

[1] Douglas Henry Daniels, “Los Angeles Zoot: Race “Riot,” The Pachuco, and Black Music Culture,” Journal of Negro Hstory, Volume 82, Issue 2 (Spring, 1997), 215.

[2] Daniels cites the Los Angeles Daily News: “There is no mistaking a zoot suit once you see it, there being nothing subtle in the style,” and offers a description of his own: “It was sometimes a suit, sometimes a sport coat and slacks, and always loosely fitting, except for the pants’ cuffs, whose narrow size made the trousers appear even baggier. Coats were often fingertip length; sometimes they reached to the knees, and invariably they had shoulders more like epaulettes. Duck-tail hair cuts . . . among blacks, long watch chains, wide-brimmed hats with narrow crowns, perhaps adorned with a long feather, and in Southern California, thick-soled shoes accented the suits.” Ibid., 207.

[3] Ibid., 214-215.

[4] Ibid., 203.

[5] E.g. Irish immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century, and Southern European, Eastern European and Chinese immigrants of the late-nineteenth/early twentieth centuries.

[6] Frank Marshall Davis, quoted in Daniels, 208.

[7] The poem in full reads “A man said to the Universe / ‘Sir, I exist!’ / ‘However,’ replied the Universe, / ‘The fact has not created in me / A sense of obligation.’” Although I cited the poem from memory, it can be found at

[8] Daniels, 205.

[9] Ibid., 204.

[10] The quote is from the song of the same name, written by Nat King Cole and Irving Mills, and performed by many, though perhaps most notably by Nat King Cole himself in 1943.

[11] Daniels, 203.

[12] I have invoked an Aristotelian line of reason here. Typically, a syllogism reads “All X are Y. Z is X. Therefore Z is Y. But I have used a different, though equally valid argument that “All X are Y. Z is not X. Therefore, Z is not Y.

[13] SCLC stands for Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and SNCC stands for Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.


  1. Your syllogist logic in citation 12 is ultimately incorrect. If it was correct, the following would be true:

    All monkeys are mammals. Humans are not monkeys. Ergo humans are not mamals.

    Yet, humans are mammals! Your logic should read: "All X are Y. Z is not Y. Therefore, Z is not X."

    E.g. All environmentalists are statists. I am not a statist. Therefore, I am not an environmentalist.

  2. What I should have said was the exclusive "Only people who dress..." rather than "All people."

    Nice catch, Drew.

    Who reads footnotes anyway? Who do you think I am, Stephen Ambrose?


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