Racism and prejudice against Mexican Americans and rising juvenile crime became synonymous with the young zoot-suit wearers who were perceived as unpatriotic due to their extravagant clothes during the period of wartime austerity.
Facts about Zoot Suit Riots
The flamboyant 'Zoot Suit' was a originally a strong fashion statement for African American men during the 1920's Harlem Renaissance of the Jazz Age.
The term "zoot" derived from the jazz culture meaning something performed or worn flamboyantly and became used to describe the flamboyant type of suits worn by the young black men during the era.
Zoot Suits were often complimented with fedora hats, colorful handkerchiefs and suspenders. Shirts were often worn open-necked without a tie.
The young American Mexicans who wore them also styled their hair in the "ducktail" hairstyle in which their hair was greased into a quiff at the front and combed into a duck's tail at the back of the head
During WW2 there was a shortage of cloth as this was required to make the soldier's uniforms. The length of women's skirts and dresses were shortened and vests, pockets and cuffs were eliminated from menís suits in order to help the war efforts - see US Mobilization for WW2.
Victory Suits: Men during WW2 either wore their pre-war clothes or wore 'Victory' suits to conserve fabric. The material required to make the Victory suits was reduced as much as possible and lacked items and embellishments such as pleats, cuffs, pockets, linings and had narrow trousers and lapels. The American "Victory" suits were known as "Utility" suits in Britain.
The flashy, ostentatious zoot suits were a stark contrast to the plain, unobtrusive Victory suits. The Victory suits represented the patriotic efforts that Americans were making towards the war effort the non-conformist wearing of the Zoot suits implied the reverse.
The Zoot Suit Riots were sparked by racism combined with fears of juvenile delinquency and any perceived unpatriotic acts.
The fear of Juvenile Delinquency was a wartime phenomenon and a rise in youth crime had occurred in the United States during World War One. The British had already experienced a huge growth in youth crime rates in the early years of WW2 and a similar pattern was expected in American following Pearl Harbor.
Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor led to Executive Order 9066 and the removal and relocation of Japanese Americans living in the West Coast. Wartime anxieties, especially in Los Angeles, California then transferred to the Mexican Americans, the city's largest minority group with demands for total, patriotic conformity. .
The Bracero Program was re-introduced by the US government in 1943 bringing 5 million temporary Mexican laborers to work in America to help the US economy during WW2. Many Mexicans were employed on the farms in California and although this helped the nation it also increased racial tensions and prejudice that led to the zoot suit riots.
Los Angeles newspaper reports about Mexican American gangs and warnings of the rise in Mexican American youth crime by the Los Angeles law enforcement officials contributed to the zoot suit hysteria and the emergence of vigilante actions.
The young, rebellious, zoot suited Mexican American teenagers were highly visible non-conformists and became targets for vigilante attacks.
United States servicemen, who were wearing patriotic "Victory" suits during off-duty periods, were becoming increasingly angered by the zoot suit wearers and their non-conformist lavish use of materials openly flouted the requirements of war-time rationing.
In June 1943 rumors spread that zoot suiters had attacked several servicemen along Main Street in Downtown Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Police Department responded to the incident including off-duty police officers calling themselves the Vengeance Squad
The next day, on June 4, 1943, about 200 members of the U.S. Navy got together a convoy of about 20 taxicabs and headed for East Los Angeles. They violently attacked anyone they encountered who was wearing a zoot-suit, stripped them of the clothes, cut off their 'duck tails' and burnt their suits and the Zoot Suit Riots bagan
The Zoot Suit riots soon escalated and continued for several days. The police did not intervene. The newspapers lauded the actions of servicemen stating they had rid the city of juvenile delinquent gangs and hoodlums The City of Los Angeles responded by banning the zoot suit.
On June 7, the Navy and Marine Corps confined all sailors and Marines to their barracks and declared Los Angeles to be off limits to all military personnel.
The Zoot Suit riots spread throughout California and to cities in Texas and Arizona. Other, similar incidents broke out in northern cities such as New York City, Detroit and Philadelphia and continued into the summer.
Despite the racial hostility towards Mexican Americans approximately 400,000 joined the armed forces in WW2. By the end of WW2 17 Mexican Americans had been awarded the Medal of Honor
After WW2 and the end of rationing, the zoot suit emerged as part of mainstream fashion
"Zoot Suit" is a song by the British rock band 'The Who' on their album Quadrophenia. The lyrics of the song are about "the snappiest dresser right down to my inch wide tie."
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