ZOOT SUIT (n.): the ultimate in clothes. The only totally and
truly American civilian suit.
-Cab Calloway, The Hepster's Dictionary, 1944
Before the fashion statements of hippies, punks, or hip-hop, there
was the zoot suit, a striking urban look of the World War II era
that captivated the imagination. Created by poor African American
men and obscure tailors, the "drape shape" was embraced by Mexican
American pachucos, working-class youth, entertainers, and swing
dancers, yet condemned by the U.S. government as wasteful and
unpatriotic in a time of war. The fashion became notorious when it
appeared to trigger violence and disorder in Los Angeles in
1943-events forever known as the "zoot suit riot." In its wake,
social scientists, psychiatrists, journalists, and politicians all
tried to explain the riddle of the zoot suit, transforming it into
a multifaceted symbol: to some, a sign of social deviance and
psychological disturbance, to others, a gesture of resistance
against racial prejudice and discrimination. As controversy swirled
at home, young men in other places-French zazous, South African
tsotsi, Trinidadian saga boys, and Russian stiliagi-made the
American zoot suit their own.
In Zoot Suit, historian Kathy Peiss explores this extreme
fashion and its mysterious career during World War II and after, as
it spread from Harlem across the United States and around the
world. She traces the unfolding history of this style and its
importance to the youth who adopted it as their uniform, and at the
same time considers the way public figures, experts, political
activists, and historians have interpreted it. This outré style was
a turning point in the way we understand the meaning of clothing as
an expression of social conditions and power relations. Zoot Suit
offers a new perspective on youth culture and the politics of
style, tracing the seam between fashion and social action.
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