Zoot Suit: the Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

Zoot Suit: the Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style
Kathy Peiss
University of Pennsylvania Press, 248pp, £16.50

On 31 December 1999, President Bill Clinton held a "celebration for the nation" at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC to mark the end of the 20th century. The party took the form of an outdoor concert, at which Hollywood actors including Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton rubbed shoulders with musicians, playwrights and the boxing icon Muhammad Ali. The title of the event, America's Millennium, claimed the moment as one of national self-definition. After a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and a Dixieland march, Will Smith appeared onstage to perform a rap, dressed in a zoot suit.

The motto of the White House Millennium Council was "Honour the past. Imagine the future". If the party was indeed the Washington establishment's attempt to "honour the past", Smith's decision to "don drapes" was cannier and more subversive than most observers realised. Intentionally or not, he brought on to the stage a relic from an era in which race played a more visible part in US identity politics.

Despite its popularity among subcultures across the globe, from South African tsotsis to the stilyagi gangs of postwar Russia, the zoot suit, according to Kathy Peiss in her carefully researched study of the outfit, was an "identifiably American style". Its origins remain a point of contention among social anthropologists but the earliest manifestations in complete form - tight cuffs, flowing trousers, a cut that hides the contours of the wearer's body while drawing attention to the shoulders and feet - have been traced to New York's African American community. It was, she writes, "a street style created . . . [to extend] conventional menswear to the point of caricature".

The fashion seems to have developed around practical concerns. As dance steps grew increasingly complex in the competitive atmosphere of venues such as the Savoy in Harlem during the 1930s, jitterbugs pegged their trousers to prevent their legs from getting tangled with those of their partners. This insider's trick had the effect of accentuating their moves: the footwork, clearly visible, appeared doubly nimble as the trousers ballooned.

From such local origins, the style quickly spread, predominantly among non-white young men but also open-minded white Americans. Zoot culture even found its way into the military: the camouflage uniforms used in the Pacific were referred to as "zoot suits" and a team of airmen daubed their Flying Fortress with the legend "Zoot Suiters".

This positive reception was short-lived. Conservative elements in the press were quick to mock such an easy target and looked on its popularity among black, Filipino and Hispanic Americans with suspicion. Some school principals banned the outfit, as did the War Pro­duction Board under Frank Walton, though his concern was ostensibly conservation of cloth at a time of global war. In 1942, Walton ordered what amounted to a ban on the style: Limitation Order L-73 prohibited designers from including cuffs, pleats, pocket flaps and vests with double-breasted jackets in their clothing. He declared to the press: "Every boy or girl who buys such a garment and every person who sells it is doing an unpatriotic deed."

The zoot suit, Peiss writes, thus became “the exception to the government's policy of shoring up fashion" during the war. Its outlaw status gave it a heightened street cred and those who had previously been oblivious or unimpressed started to take it up as a mark of defiance. This lent a political significance to the wearing of the style, which until then had mostly been adopted for aesthetic or tribal reasons. In turn, its politicisation seems to have encouraged a more aggressive response from those who saw in it a dangerous affirmation of ethnic-minority pride.

This new hostility culminated in the start of the zoot suit riots in Los Angeles in 1943, in which gangs of sailors tore across the city, harassing and assaulting men, mainly Hispanic and black, on the pretext of destroying garments cut in the style - a horrific literalisation of the idea of a fashion police. "We'll destroy every zoot suit in Los Angeles before this is over," a sailor told the Chicago Tribune, but that didn't explain why non-white young men wearing work clothes were also victimised.

Peiss's history of the style serves equally as a survey of mid-20th-century social theory. Her analysis is strongest where it dissects the tendencies of successive generations of behavioural scientists since the Second World War who have attempted to "read" the zoot suit as a street-level text. Yet she seems reluctant to offer a clear interpretation of her own. In the recent book Harlem Is Nowhere, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts bemoans the "typical obligation of writing about Harlem: offering pronouncements that Harlem is this or Harlem is that". Peiss avoids the trap of treating the zoot suit - one of Harlem's best-known creations - in such a reductive way; but this evasiveness results in an overcautious study that both frustrates and fascinates.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war