As is the case with most types of fashion that come to mean something more to people and society in general, zoot suits were really just articles of clothing at first -- the object of attention, no doubt, but in no way political. America's involvement in World War II began to change that, however. The war effort required rationing of all sorts of goods, including textiles, and because the construction of zoot suits needed a lot of cloth, those who wore them were considered by some to be unpatriotic.
There was also a racial element to how so-called zoot suiters were perceived by white, middle class Americans. "Because the style was especially popular with African Americans and Mexican Americans, some authorities and newspapers, especially in Los Angeles, linked [the zoot suit] to gangs and criminal activity," Peiss says. "None of these observations were necessarily true, but they stuck." Nevertheless, this perception was routinely emphasized in newspaper coverage of the day, as crimes were regularly blamed on the zoot suiters in the headlines.
Peiss contends that these attacks against the zoot suiters are what likely turned the suits into symbols of defiance and resistance. For certain segments of the largely minority zoot suiters, then, wearing their flamboyant outfits became a way to protest the often unjust manner in which they were treated, as well as a way to assert their independence. In other words, the very fact that zoot suits and those wearing them were targeted by authorities helped transform the clothing into a potent symbol.
Read on to find out how these overlapping tensions blew up in L.A.