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zoot suit

30 july 2014

Kathy Peiss's Zoot Suit, new in paperback from Penn, is a highly readable account of an epoch in men's fashion and social relations in the United States. But it does more: without involving herself in metatheoretical discussions, Peiss argues persuasively for original ways of reading images, clothes, and subcultures in general.

Peiss's insights can be illustrated by contrasting two of the commentators she quotes on the era of the zoot suit. Pundit S.I. Hayakawa wrote an impassioned, progressive piece for the Chicago Defender, urging readers to perceive the sociological expressions behind the style. For Hayakawa, the suits were

a symbol of the dash and glory which these young people would LIKE to have, but CANNOT GET. … Give us jobs in something besides car-laundries and shoe-shine parlors. Give us GOALS that we can work for. (145)
As seen by Hayakawa, the exaggerated length and balloon knees of the zoot suit were transparently a call for social justice. But as Dan Burley wrote in the New York Amsterdam News,
Anthropology is a heluva subject in that all you gotta do is look out the window at the nearest zoot suit or drape shape and write what you think is on his mind. (156)
For decades, Peiss observes, students of American society have looked at the zoot suit and ascribed political gestures to its wearers. The suit has been read as visual rhetoric. For some readers (black, white, and Mexican-American alike) it's been seen as tawdry, animalistic, insouciant. For others, including progressives like Hayakawa, it's been the key phrase in a discourse that claims respect, dignity, rights, and cultural independence.

But Peiss is more inclined to wonder why people physically chose to wear such outlandish things, and finds no easy answers. Zoot suiters spoke through style alone, and they didn't come with captions. When they did verbally characterize images of their favorite wear, the messages were enigmatic. Peiss reprints some cartoon sketches of zoot suiters made by young zoot suiters; they're full of friends' names and rhyming slogans like "Terrific as the Pacific!" (67, 63) – not Jobs for Mexicans or End Segregation Now.

Unless prescribed from the outside by institutional forces, dress is an intensely private realm of expression. I'm sitting here typing this wearing black Wranglers, worn running shoes, a button-down shirt, and a baseball-themed tie. What am I saying? That I don't have a lot of money for clothes? But surely no faculty member is so poor that he cannot coordinate.

Zoot suiters were, of course, condemned for spending too much on the drape shape. "Drape" suggests way more fabric than needed. But as with many cultural icons (food is another notable instance), clothing can turn from signifying lack to excess on a dime. In the Depression, brothers without many dimes to spare sometimes turned to draped clothing in order to save on tailoring second-hand suits. As the prewar economy boomed, that makeshift fashion became the target of overspending, as custom-ordered zoot suits deliberately overshot their wearers' proportions. When wartime rationing kicked in, the zoot suit was officially proscribed. The War Production Board limited the dimensions of men's suits, to save fabric for GIs. That regulation was the closest thing to a sumptuary law ever enacted in the modern United States.

But as Peiss points out, wearing the zoot suit was never illegal, and indeed an ordinance harder to enforce would be hard to imagine. Even cutting back (literally) on the size of garments was a nightmare for regulators: who's to stop somebody from ordering a jacket for a much smaller man?

When zoot suiters talked about why they liked the style, they might say it was different, looked good, or was easy to move in. Easy to dance in, particularly, and Americans remained Puritanical enough about dancing in the 1930s and 40s to be fearful of such fluidity. Yet for other purposes, zoot suits were obviously impractical. They could be hard simply to walk around in, and were hard to get on and off, particularly their "pegged" trouser legs with the "stuff cuff."

So: rich/poor; ugly/fly; individual/herd; practical/impractical: the zoot suit seems as double in its meanings as any other item of clothing. After the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, the suit came to seem in retrospect coded as "minority," but even that association isn't correct for its early life. White zoot suiters were many, deliberately imitating and tapping into African-American style like backwards-capped white hip-hoppers of a more recent era. Only after the riots (which were centered on zoot suits only in Los Angeles, and for a comparatively brief period) did the fashion come to seem inappropriate for whites. It is still alive, Peiss points out, as an African-American style that combines ostentation and traditional, conservative cultural values.

Commentators on the meaning of fashion "run the risk of imposing an alien meaning on objects that do not speak for themselves," Peiss argues (44). She quotes César Chávez, a zoot suiter in his early days, on the muteness of the very clothes he wore: "We didn't know exactly what was happening" (71). And neither Peiss nor Chávez would attribute that uncertainty to false consciousness. The zoot suiters were not inadvertently "saying" something with their dress that only a sociologist could figure out. They were wearing clothes they enjoyed wearing; meaning, as so often, would be imposed by the beholder.

Peiss quotes many a beholder in the course of this incisive study. There are middle-class black journalists concerned that the kids are letting the race down (84). There are get-off-my-lawn types of all colors outraged by these kids today with their stuff we didn't have (147-48). There are unlikely sympathizers like the corn-interest Iowa Senator Guy Gillette, who announced that "individualistic clothes are one of the prerogatives of young people" (92). Langston Hughes noted that when kids escaped the poverty of the Depression, "it made them feel good to go to extremes" (149). The actual dimensions and cut of the suit mattered less than the contrasts it posed to convention.

Peiss, Kathy. Zoot Suit: The enigmatic career of an extreme style. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.