The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

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OCT 2011 Issue

The Politics of Fashion

Kathy Peiss
Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011)

Fashion is our second skin. Our fleshly persona can be hidden or displayed, repressed or exaggerated by the costumes we wear. Dress can be magical. The harassed secretary by day can become the glamorous starlet during the evening; a company’s uptight executive can become a Don Juan at night. All it takes is a change of clothes, of appearance and mindset.  Fashion dresses – and creates—many sins.

Sometimes fashion becomes more than a mere decorative trapping, crossing the line from a personal style to a social, if not political, statement. In the decade spanning the mid-1930s to mid-’40s, a new male fashion emerged and gained popularity thoughout the country. It also provoked much controversy. It was the new style of the youthful sharpie, the jitterbuger, the zoot suiter.

The zoot look caught on predominately among young men from racial and national minorities, but had a strong white following as well. It gave expression to a generation with roots still in the Depression but anticipated a new era of war and post-war conversion.

Kathy Peiss’s most recent book, Zoot Suit, is a window into this unique and transgressive male fashion statement. She carefully details its origins, aesthetics, and appeal. She shows how the zoot suit became a national fad and an issue of social contestation. Building on this, she reveals how it instigated what has come to be known as the “Zoot Suit Riot” that broke out in Los Angeles in June 1943 and led to a wave of hate crimes against minorities in cities throughout the country.

Zoot Suit is a must read for anyone interested in the convergence point of American personal identity, popular culture, race relations, and politics. Equally appealing, its rich historical accounts and careful analysis of a very ritualized fashion fad will intrigue the fashionista in everyone.

Peiss is one of the nation’s leading academic authorities on the history of popular culture.  Her two previous books are essential resources: Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Lesiure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986) and Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture (1999). In these books, the subject of her study was the making of the modern female; in Zoot, she shifts to males, particularly African-American and Mexican-American young males, and postmodern America. Zoot seems written more for the academic community than general readers. One feels that Peiss has much more to say, but holds back because of a forced, academic battle or meta-critique she is waging with her peers over the relationship between “culture” and “politics.”  Nevertheless, Zoot is a valuable contribution to our understanding of both popular culture and politics, particularly that of World War II-era Los Angeles.

Cab Calloway, the legendary bandleader, defined the zoot suit as: “The ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit.” It was a distinct look: a narrow, knee-length dress-coat cut with wide shoulders; billowing, navel-high pants pegged at the ankle and held up by suspenders; a short tie accompanying a button up shirt; flashy shoes; and often either a fedora or a tando hat sporting a feature.

For those who’ve either read Malcolm X’s autobiography or seen Spike Lee’s adaptation, when he puts on a zoot suit, his world changes. He is transformed from the country-bumpkin Malcolm Little into an ultra-hip, African-American Boston urban sophisticate. His change in identity marks a turning point not only in Malcolm’s life but American social life as well.

World War II changed America. War production realigned the nation’s populations, especially for soldiers and plant workers, leading to cultural clashes throughout the country. In the summer of 1942, the federal War Production Board effectively banned the zoot suit, claiming it used too much material. However, minority youth and workers ignored the ban.

In Los Angeles, cultural differences fueled mounting tension. In ’41, clashes between Mexican-American zoot suiters and white servicemen, many from the South, broke out in movie theaters, ballrooms, and other venues. In ’42, the Sleepy Lagoon murder case intensified cultural differences and brought zoot suiters front-page news coverage.  Things came to a boil in June ’43 when the Zoot Suit Riot erupted.

Over five days, white soldiers and sailors attacked zoot-suit-wearing Mexican-Americans—called pachucos—and more than 110 civilians and servicemen were injured. The riot broke out on the night of June 3rd when some 200 uniformed sailors aboard a caravan of taxis invaded East Los Angeles, a Mexican-American stronghold, and went after any zoot suiter they could find. The white rioters broke into bars and theaters, beating whoever they could, even stripping some victims of their clothes. Time reported that, “The police practice was to accompany the caravans of soldiers and sailors in police cars, watch the beatings and jail the victims.” Peiss found that “the riot climaxed years of growing apprehension in white Los Angeles over racial and ethnic minorities.”

Peiss offers a complex analysis of the zoot suit, one that ties innovative popular fashion styles to ethnic or racial issues and political developments. However, she tries too hard to avoid collapsing culture into politics, and as a result she narrows the scope of her analysis. For one so well versed in American history, it is disappointing that Peiss does not contextualize the zoot suit phenomenon, including the riot, within terms of the larger politics of fashion that has long marked American history. During the two decades following the Revolution, an insurgent sexual ardor spread through all American social institutions and stirred much controversy. “Men wore skin tight pantaloons and displayed their thighs by cutting down the skirt of the coat to narrow tails,” notes historian Milton Rugoff. “Women abandoned corsets and bared their arms, shoulders and parts of their breasts.”

Since then, provocative fashions have played a subversive role in the development of popular sensibilities in American culture. The flapper of the Roaring 20s, the hippie of the 60s or today’s punk, goth, rap, or hip-hop styles challenge the de-eroticized conformity of the business suit, the military or police uniform, and the khakis of corporate casual Friday.

Looking at males, most “sexy” Hollywood stars represent a masculinity stripped of their erotic being. Like the initial appeal of the zoot suit, only those at the periphery of popular fashion cultivate an autonomous erotic identity. Sadly, even this sexuality is, of course, eventually commodified by the culture industry.

People are multi-dimensional beings, existing as both subjects and objects in history. As a subject, each person is an individual, a physical being; each person is the subject of her/his own self-understanding, the cacophany of psychological states, insights, beliefs, impulses, judgements, and feelings that give voice to a very personal, idiosyncratic sense of self. As an object, each person is preceived by others and incorporates their understanding of this perceived sense of self as one’s otherness.

These categories of self, as subject and object, change and evolve over time. Fashion is one of the principal ways through which this three-dimensional self is publicly, socially expressed.

Kathy Peiss’s Zoot Suit provides invaluable analysis and insight into a uniquely American phenomenon. One could only hope that she had opened up her analysis to the deeper, more profound questions that link culture to politics and to personal identity grounded in a unique historical moment.


David Rosen

DAVID ROSEN is author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Counterpunch, and Filmmaker Magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

All Issues