The Zoot Suit Riots

Snippet 1: The Zoot Suit

"What about these three boys, coming now along the platform, tall and slender, walking with swinging shoulders in their well-pressed, too-hot-for-summer suits, their collars high and tight about their necks, their identical hats of black cheap felt set upon the crowns of their heads with a severe formality above their conked hair? It was as though I'd never seen their like before: walking slowly, their shoulders swaying, their legs swinging from their hips in trousers that ballooned upward from cuffs fitting snug about their ankles; their coats long and hip-tight with shoulders far too broad to be those of natural western men." —From The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

"A killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic's cell"— Malcolm X's description of the zoot suit

By the 1930s, the terms "zooty" and "zoot" had become slang expressions among musicians and anyone else who aspired to being hip. The terms were used to describe just about anything played, designed, or displayed with extravagant style. No wonder, then, that a form of the word was attached to a suit that came into vogue in the early forties. The "zoot suit" was nothing if not extravagantly styled. The shoulder pads were huge and emphasized the chest and upper body; the waist was fitted and the pants had a pronounced drape. Usually, the zoot suit was accessorized with a long watch chain and a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over the eyes. The young African-American, Philipino, and Mexican-American men (and some women as well) who wore zoot suits were making a statement. Maybe their parents had tried to fade into the background and make sure not to offend anyone by being a different color, but they had other ideas. Wearing a zoot suit was their way of saying, "I am proud of who I am, and I don't need to look like everyone else to be comfortable in my own skin."

How the first zoot suit came into existence is still unclear. According to one theory, the suit was modeled on one worn in 1939 by Clark Gable playing Rhett Butler in the movie Gone with the Wind. According to another, the zoot suit style was picked up after the singer and bandleader Cab Calloway wore one in the 1941 film Stormy Weather (which, I have to add, also features a very young Lena Horne singing the title song in a way that will give you goosebumps.) If you are interested, you can find a summary of the suit's possible origins here.

Although they probably don't bear the same symbolic meaning, zoot suits are still worn. And if you think the zoot suit might be just the thing for your next big occasion, you need to visit SuavecitoApparel Co., where you can buy one that is, according to the store ad, the real thing, not the "wannabe zoot tux" sold in regular tux stores. At the very least, you can see some wonderful thumbnails of the suits in brilliant colors, ranging from a traffic-stopping chartreuse to an absolutely luscious purple.

Snippet 2: The Zoot Suit Riots

"You can say that the cops had a 'hands-off' policy during the riots. Well, we represented public opinion. Many of us were in the First World War, and we're not going to pick on kids in the service."

In the nightlife of the New York streets, young African-American men like Malcolm X could wear a zoot suit and blend right into the crowd. But the same was not true in Los Angeles, where young Mexican-Americans wearing zoot suits became the targets of military men, especially sailors, on leave. Tensions had been running high in Los Angeles throughout the early forties, due to decades of population change as people from Mexico and the American mid-West arrived in the city, hoping to start a new life. Those tensions only increased with the coming of World War II, which encouraged patriotism and suspicion in equal measure. As the largest minority in the city, Mexican-Americans, in particular, were viewed with mistrust by some white Americans not yet willing to accept so many newcomers with different colored skin, speech, and style. That mistrust only deepened as the press played up the growing presence of young, second-generation Mexican-Americans who called themselves "pachucos" and advertised their defiance of main stream culture, as well as their parents' values, by wearing zoot suits and speaking "Calo," the language of Spanish gypsies.

With time the tensions might have simmered down as they usually do in a country as diverse as the United States. But it was wartime and Los Angeles was packed with sailors and soldiers, many of them infuriated by the sight of zoot-suited, Mexican-American men, who were considered unpatriotic.(In fact, Mexican-American soldiers earned the highest percentage of Congressional Medal of Honor awards of any minority in the United States.) Those Mexican-American men, meanwhile weren't about to tolerate any insults to them or to their girlfriends and fights started to break out between the two groups. Then at the end of May in 1943,sailor Joe Dacy Coleman was badly beaten in a confrontation between the two groups. Exactly how and why Coleman got his head split open is not completely clear. As the historian Eduardo Pagán later wrote, "The details of the fight grew larger and more distorted in each re-telling of the story." What was clear was that the stage was set for retaliation. And retaliation came swiftly, with a fury that was relentless. This is how the PBS American Experience web site, also the source of the quotations, describes the start of what came to be called the "zoot suit riots."

"About fifty sailors left the Armory on the night of Thursday, June 3, armed with makeshift weapons. The attack on Seaman Coleman was still fresh in their minds and rumors of new attacks were swirling through the base. Their first stop was the nearby neighborhood of Alpine Street—scene of many previous confrontations. Unable to find any zoot-suiters at Alpine, they proceeded toward downtown and stopped at the Carmen Theater. After turning on the house lights, the sailors roamed the aisles looking for zoot-suiters. The first victims of the zoot suit riots—12- and 13-year-old boys—were guilty of little more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ignoring the protests of the patrons, the sailors tore the suits off their bodies and beat and clubbed the boys. The remains of their suits were then set ablaze."

Furious at what had now become a racial attack that targeted even males not wearing zoot suits—African-Americans had also become fair game—those under attack fought back. But they were no match for the combined forces of the U.S. military and the Los Angeles police, who either stood by or else arrested the victims for allegedly causing the outbreaks of violence that were spreading all over the city. By June 7th, soldiers and marines from as far away as San Diego drove to Los Angeles to join in the fighting. Attempts by Attorney Manuel Ruiz and other prominent Mexican Americans to make city officials crack down on the military men storming through the city failed, and it wasn't until June 8th when senior military officials declared Los Angeles off limits that the riots finally ended. Although it may seem hard to believe, the City Council of Los Angeles decided to do its part by banning the wearing of zoot suits in public, making it punishable by a 50-day jail term.

Sources: For a brief time line of the riots, go here. For a more detailed time line, see the PBS site.

Snippet 3: The Zoot Suit Riots Set to Music

"Who's that whisperin' in the trees?
It's two sailors and they're on leave
Pipes and chains and swingin' hands,
Who's your daddy? Yes I am!"

I love this song, and I've listened to it for years. Even so, I'm embarrassed to say that I never made the connection between the song and the real events referenced in the lyrics. Maybe because the song's tone is so energetic and upbeat, the lyrics and the dark reality they describe just did not connect for me. In any case, here's the one good thing that came out of all that long-ago fury and blood shed. Unfortunately, the lead singer isn't wearing a zoot suit.

Last change made to this page: June 4 2011