The world of fashion has always been tied to politics, from dye colors denoting rank, to colorful rosettes that declare the wearers support of the Revolution, what a person wears can make a very loud statement about their political and social beliefs.
The zoot suit was a style first popularized by African American jazz musicians in American the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. The direct opposite of the more slim-tailored styles that were common at the time, the zoot suit was characterized by high-waisted, wide legged pants that tapered to a narrow cuff at the ankle, paired with a baggy coat with wide lapels and padded shoulders.
This look was adopted predominantly by African-American and Mexican-American youth — mostly male, but with many women following the trend as well — who appreciated its flashy style, especially on the dance floor. Over the next few years the style was adopted by caucasian youth as well, mostly from lower- and middle-income families, as a sign of rebellion. Though some insist it was the war itself that these youth were protesting, many others insist that it was a direct thumbing-the-nose at the idea of the government telling them what they could and could not wear.
Regardless of the intent behind it, most parents at the time were less than pleased with the statement. During the war years, fabric was severely rationed so the conspicuous consumption evident in the zoot suit was considered a form of rebellion, an excess believed to be one of the contributing factors for the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943 (yes, the ones in the song. Good luck ever getting that out of your head.)
The riots themselves were a series of attacks that occurred in Los Angeles, California during the summer of 1943. There were a number of factors that contributed the the eventual fallout: as most of the men had been sent off to fight in the war, many migrant workers came north from Mexico to fill the positions that had been vacated. This influx of workers was not particularly welcomed by most of the Caucasian Americans, especially given the racial segregation that was already prevalent in American society at the time. While some of the people involved targeted the zoot-suiters, or ‘zooters’, due to their supposed rebellion against the war effort, there were others who used the fights as an excuse to target the predominantly ethnic youth culture and the interracial nature and inspiration of the zoot suit style.
Similar brawls broke out across North America over the next twenty years, often between military servicemen and youths, particularly of the “zoot suit” subculture. Isolated incidents of who-pushed-whom often escalated into full-scale fights that spread across cities. One particularly notable incident occurred in Montreal in the early 1940’s, when tensions between English-speaking Canadian servicemen and the predominantly French and Italian zoot-suiters — whom the servicemen considered at best to be unpatriotic draft-dodgers, and nazi sympathizers at worst — finally came to a head. Within the first week of June in 1944, the zoot-suiters and servicemen went to war in a series of black-and-forth attacks that spread across the city. (For more information about this incident, see here. http://www.historymuseum.ca/learn/research/resources-for-scholars/essays/the-montreal-and-verdun-zoot-suit-disturbances-of-june-1944/)
Interestingly enough, similar fashion movements to the zoot suits also appeared in France and Germany around this time, inspired by the counterculture movement and American swing music.
And it didn’t stop there. Even after the war ended, fights were breaking out, including in my hometown of Edmonton, Alberta in 1951.