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How Zoot Suits Work

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The Zoot Suit Riots and Beyond
Mexican American youths in zoot suits are detained for questioning in a Los Angeles jail following a brawl during the Zoot Suit Riots.
Mexican American youths in zoot suits are detained for questioning in a Los Angeles jail following a brawl during the Zoot Suit Riots.

There were a number of incendiary ingredients bubbling in Los Angeles during the summer of 1943. For one, Southern California was a center of military activity, a place where thousands of servicemen were stationed before shipping out to the Pacific Theater [source: PBS].

At the same time, newspapers in L.A. routinely depicted young, zoot suit wearing Mexican Americans, not only as being unpatriotic for wearing their outfits, but also as lowlife street thugs.

"The record already reveals killings, stabbings and cases of innocent women having been molested by zoot suit gangsters," read an editorial in the Los Angeles Examiner titled, "Police Must Clean Up L.A. Hoodlumism." Some historians believe latent and overt racism led to this type of criticism in the press.

What eventually became known as the Zoot Suit Riots began in L.A. gradually throughout the spring of 1943, with clashes occurring almost everyday between servicemen and Mexican American youth. On May 31, about a dozen sailors and soldiers fought with a group of young Mexican American men, a conflict that left one sailor badly injured [source: PBS]. This initial scuffle quickly escalated, fueled at least in part by sensationalistic press coverage.

Over the next week or so, a series of fights between servicemen and zoot suiters occurred around the city, with taxicabs full of sailors seeking revenge arriving in minority areas of L.A. On June 7, 1943, thousands of servicemen and others descended on downtown L.A. and beat up and stripped many young Mexican Americans, some who were wearing zoot suits and some who weren't [source: PBS]. The riots also spread to Watts, the largely African-American enclave of the city before the military forbade servicemen from entering L.A. and the city council passed a resolution banning people from wearing zoot suits.

In subsequent decades -- especially during the height of the black liberation and Chicano pride movements -- those seeking to express resistance and independence have adopted the zoot suit. Even overseas, the zoot suit has been utilized as a form of dissent. In the Soviet Union and Poland, young men wore zoot suits to protest communism, though Peiss from the University of Pennsylvania says it was more a way to tweak authorities than real subversion. "It's important not to see them as full-fledged political dissenters for the most part," she says. "But these young men adopted American styles as a subtle statement of opposition."

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