Style

The Politics of Fashion

Zoot suit
Female model
Female model
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What the Zoot Suit Tells Us About America

In the Big Apple, "Fashion Week" welcomes the world's glitterati. A past FW hosted the cutting-edge fashion industry and was anchored at the bosom of Gothem's gentry, Lincoln Center. This reflects just how important fashion is in the life of the New York.

Fashion is our second skin. Our oh-so-human 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; the company's uptight executive can become a Don Juan at night. All it takes is a change of clothes, of costume and mindset. Fashion dresses ' and undresses ' many sins.

Fashion displays people as multidimensional beings, existing as both subjects and objects -- and constituted in history. As a subject, each person is an individual, a living, physical being; each accepts her/his own self-understanding, the cacophony of psychological experiences, unconscious existence, insights, beliefs, impulses, judgements and feelings that give voice to a very personal, idiosyncratic identity of self. As an object, each person is constituted in relations to others and conceives him/her-self as reflected by the other/s; s/he incorporates this understanding as a sense of self as one's otherness.

These categories of self, as subject and object, exist in history and thus change, evolve and are transformed. Individuals live in a particular time and place, within a cultural and historic context. Fashion is one of the principal means through which this three-dimensional self is represented.

Today, the American male has been effectively de-eroticized, reduced to the conformity of the business suit, the military uniform and the corporate casual Friday outfit. With rare exception, the "sexy" male Hollywood star expresses a masculinity stripped of its erotic being; few push the limits of passion, desire. Handsome but harmless. This was different for those who wore with the zoot suite 70 years ago.

The zoot appealed primarily to those at the periphery of popular fashion, African-American, Mexican-American and white youth. Today, it is only those at the periphery who contest conformist culture, be it nerd, punk, rapper or Goth, and express an autonomous erotic identity. Sadly, even their sexuality is, of course, quickly commodified by the culture industry, transformed from a personal statement of resistance to a mass-marketed standardized identity of accommodation.

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Sometimes fashion becomes more than a mere decorative trapping, crossing the line from a personal style to a social, if not political, statement. This has occurred repeatedly in American history. The 1920s flapper, the '30s-'40s zoot suiter, the '60's hippie, the '80s punk and today's hip-hop rapper represent focal point of social struggle over sexuality articulated through a person's fashion identity. Three-quarters of a century ago, the process of commodifying cutting-edge, hipster culture took much longer. Today, our 24/7 global digital communications, media and social networking capabilities create fads nearly instantaneously.

In the decade between the mid-1930s to mid-'40s, a new male fashion emerged, one reverberated throughout the nation's minority underground, including young white guys. It was the youthful sharpie, the jitterbugger, the zoot suiter. It gave expression to a generation with roots still in the Depression but anticipating a new era of War and post-War conversion, the "American Century."

Cab Calloway, the legendary bandleader, defined the zoot suit as: "The ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit." It embodied 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, you might recall when he puts on a zoot suit his world changed. He is transformed from the country-bumpkin Malcolm Little into the ultra-hip, African-American Boston sophisticate. It marks a turning point not only in Malcolm's life but American social life.

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. Many minority youth and war-plant 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 trial involving warring Mexican-American gangs brought zoot suiters onto 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 night of June 3rd when some 200 uniformed sailors commandeered a caravan of taxis and invaded East Los Angeles, a Mexican-Americans stronghold.

The white rioters went after any zoot suiter they could find and did so with military vengeance. They broke into bars and theaters, beating whomever they could, even stripping some male 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."

To learn more about the history of the zoot suit, the evolution of male fashion and the Los Angeles riot, Kathy Peiss' new book, Zoot Suit (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) is a wonderfully starting point. She carefully details its origins, aesthetics and appeal. It's a good read.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 1:49 PM EDT | More details

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