Zoot Suit Riots: The Racist Riots Sparked By Non-White Neighbors Using 'Too Much Cloth'

By | June 1, 2020

How Did This Happen In the 1940s?

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You’ve heard its name memorialized in song, but do you know the very real and very frightening story behind the Zoot Suit Riots that occurred in 1943? At the time, young Latino men who wore pork pie hats, dangling watch chains, and large zoot suits were considered a menace to society. Their crime? Using "too much cloth."

The riots were the product of some of the most heinous racial violence in the history of Los Angles, spurred on by American servicemen attacking young Latino men for using excess fabric in their suits, something that the young men saw as a source of pride but the servicemen viewed as a snub in the era of wartime rationing. For the week of June 3, 1943, the city of Los Angeles was a war zone.

Zoot Suits As A Status Symbol

A zoot suit isn't just a big, flashy suit. It is, but it's so much more than that. In the 1930s, young men who spent their evenings dancing in uptown Manhattan started wearing baggy suits that were perfectly tailored to keep them from tripping over their clothes while accentuating their movements. The shoulders were padded, the jackets that covered them were long, and they were punctuated with long watch chains and wide-brimmed hats. The suits were a sign of excess and economic prosperity in a time when no one had any money. Wearing a perfectly fitted zoot suit was like wrapping yourself in a million bucks even if you didn't have two nickels to rub together.

Popularized by performer Cab Calloway, the popularity of the look quickly spread to the West Coast, where it was adopted by African-American and Latino youths who saw the zoot suit as a way to stand out in an era when no one wanted them around.

The Anti–Zoot Suit Movement

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Zoot suits came into fashion at the onset of World War II, when the use of essential fabrics like silk and wool was restricted in the U.S. It wasn't difficult, however, to find a tailor willing to use the excess of fabric required to make a zoot suit. Servicemen saw these outfits as a waste of resources and a gesture of apathy toward their fight overseas, but that was hardly the only motivation for the attacks that became known as the Zoot Suit Riots. Zoot suits were most popular with young men from minority communities, which meant that many of the criticisms of the ostentatious suits had fairly racist undertones. Much like today, many members of the white population of the late '30s and early '40s didn't like seeing minorities succeed or show off their wealth, so these suits were a magnet for racist anger. It was only a matter of time before the powder keg of the anti–zoot suit movement exploded.