Zoot Suits: More Than Just A Suit

by BONZO, HSM Editor

PSTalent, formerly a Home community group, is now a legitimate production studio for PlayStation Home and beyond. And their virtual-commodity debut is a most interesting one: zoot suits.

This apparel has an interesting history behind it. These suits, which were popularized in the 1940’s, are in use today — not as costumes, but as formal wear for a subculture which popularized them in their early days. They carry a stigma, often misunderstood, and generally stereotyped as a specific underworld staple. These suits were popularized early on in the 20th century, during one of the world’s ugliest wars.

War is not just a battle for lines on a map; it is often a cultural divide as well. It is divisive among people in opposition that may not even be fighting these wars. We’ve seen this recently with Iraq and Afghanistan. Here in the United States, the popular sentiment is that the war in Iraq was a huge mistake — yet there are plenty of people who still support it, even if they feel they paid a hefty price in that war with the loss of a loved one. No one wants to feel that their efforts, or the loss of a loved one, was for nothing. In war, no one wants to feel that while you sacrifice, others scoff.

This was the tumultuous atmosphere in the 1940’s when the Second World War raged on. Raw materials were scarce, and a nationwide effort was initiated with the purpose to regulate the production of materials and fuel with the War Production Board. This agency refocused factories to manufacture for the war and regulated the production of consumer products to limit excessive use of materials which included metals, rubber, paper and fabrics.

Zoot suits require a lot of material to make, and thus it made them luxury items. The zoot suits were seen as an affront to the war efforts by the War Production Board, because they required so much material that could have gone to the war effort instead. Policies were put in place with commercial ventures to reduce and limit the amount of fabric they used by 26%, and as a result introduced a streamlined suit and effectively banned the manufacturing of the zoot suits.

But any time you ban something, you immediately create a black market for it.  So rogue tailors created what were essentially bootlegged suits, ignoring the restrictions in order to supply the demand of the zoot suit.

These suits were popular with minority youths among the African American population, Asian Americans, and particularly the Latino community. This was the age of jazz, and the zoot suit was a staple of that subculture. Wearing the suit was the equivalent of ‘bling’ today, or wearing designer labels. It meant you were a big shot, or pretending to be. You were showing your audacity, your rebelliousness and your freedom of expression.

But not everyone saw it that way. In that time period, conservation of materials and abstaining from excessive use or waste was a patriotic effort. To ignore that meant you were unpatriotic, and you ignored the rationing laws, and scoffed at the sacrifices of the troops facing death in a foreign land. World War Two was supposed to unify the nation against a bigger threat, but there were other politics in place still lingering in the homeland — particularly when it came to minorities, and even moreso when it came to immigration and the recurring anti-Mexican sentiment.

In the early 1930’s, thousands of Mexicans, including American citizens, were deported to Mexico in what was known as Mexican Repatriation. Still thousands more remained in the southwest and Los Angeles, California had an extensive segregated Latino community which faced growing racism and opposition in hate-fueled propaganda. This brewed a growing resentment between the Mexican youths and the white population of America at the time. You have to remember that racism at the time was not only acceptable, it was enforced through segregation laws — and the propaganda only fueled the fire. If you think it was a different time and times have changed, you’re right: race-baiting propaganda has only gotten more subliminal, but still exists.

The Zoot Suit Riots were fueled by a lot of things: a growing sentiment of injustice, a mounting tension between the culture clash, and a tense paranoia resulting from the uncertainty of a World War. All these explosive elements ignited in a series of violent confrontations between military servicemen and the Mexican and minority youths who brazenly wore the suits in public. Riots didn’t occur only in Los Angeles, but in several major cities across the nation.

The zoot suits were not just about style; they were often associated with street gangs or the Latino equivalent of a mafia. Not everyone who wore the suit was in a gang, but Pachuco gangs wore them as identification of who they were and a symbol of their disdain for the law and (like gangs today) to show off materialism. This staple of this subculture continues to exist among Latino gangs to this day, and among the Lowrider groups. Again, not everyone who wears a zoot suit is a gang member, but the suit is worn mostly as an homage or decorum for the history the suit represents. Just as the chalk-stripe suit is a staple of the Mafia image, the zoot suit is a staple of the proper Latino gangster.

Home has seen a zoot suit before, and the PSTalent shadow collection is another addition in a variation of colors selling the bad-ass gangster image associated with these suits. It perpetuates the myth that surrounds the outfits, and recreates an image we may be used to. The smoking gun animated item may complete the image, but when you buy it and when you wear it, I hope you remember: it’s not just another suit.

October 31st, 2012 by | 12 comments
BONZO is an editor and artist for HomeStation Magazine.

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12 Responses to “Zoot Suits: More Than Just A Suit”

  1. The Director says:

    Wow! That sums up my entire research prior to development, on one page, and a good read at that!

    I was born and raised in Los Angeles (not exactly during that era) but this has a hint of what was popular on the east side during those days. I actually consulted with a few true ‘zoot suiters’ and they felt honored when it was complete, they said it was ‘firme’.

    Thanks again for an awesome article! ~ DOD

  2. tbaby says:

    Great article Bonxo! I just love PST and am so proud to be part of such an amazing organization when we do stuff like this. It just goes to show how diverse the talent of PST truly is. Of course, the Director is awesome and can’t thank him enough. I know there is so much more to come from PST and I’m so excited! Thanks again for this comprehensive and insightful article!

  3. KrazyFace says:

    Really good read Bon. That’s what I like about reading, sometimes ya learn stuff!!!

  4. Burbie52 says:

    Very interesting read Bonzo, I knew that there were the Zoot Suit Wars, but not why they happened. I love history and you did a great job explaining this. I do wish they had women’s clothes to match the era though, I agree with Kass on that one. Maybe those will come with time. Good job to PST as well!

  5. That was a good read. Thanks! :)

  6. Jin Lovelace says:

    Very good read, Bonxo! :D

  7. Very good article. Very informative..kudos to you!

  8. Marsh says:

    That was a beautiful article. I truly want to buy a zoot suit now.. I wanna bring back the 40’s and 50’s… I want everyone I know to buy a zoot suit and we can turn a friday into a bringing back the oldies night! Damn.. That sounds awesome.. We’d play all the good stuff like Brenton Wood, The Dells, Ritchie Valens, Gene Chandler, Oh the list goes on.. I want to express my freedom and pride and respect by wearing a zoot suit. Thank you once again for this wonderful article.

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