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The zoot suit became a common sight in the 1930s and 1940s, with many African-American and Latino youths making it the suit of choice. In the same period, the zoot suit gained even more popularity, but this time for the wrong reason; they were associated with delinquent criminal activity and violence. The zoot suit is a man’s suit with a double-breasted and wide-shouldered, oversized jacket, high-waisted, wide-legged, tight cuffed, pegged trousers. The coat is often striped or checked and has wide lapel pins. The look of the zoot suit was completed by a colorful tie and pocket handkerchief, an endless watch chain and a fedora (a wide-brimmed hat). With the suit becoming a favorite clothe for minorities in the U.S – African Americans, Latinos, and Italian Americans- it came to be associated with crime, violence, and gang affiliation, with many innocent minority youths getting into trouble with state and federal authorities for wearing a zoot suit.
The zoot suit was a popular style in dance halls in areas like Harlem, Detroit, and Chicago. Their popularity grew even more, when popular musicians, particularly jazz musicians, began to wear and perform in zoot suits. In the dance halls, the suit was loved for its ability to allow the radical and frantic movement involved in dancing, while remaining classy and good looking to impress other people, more so ladies. The suit became an ethnically and racially diverse youth culture across many cities, but the ethnic and racial origins of the youths popularizing zoot suits soon became a problem. Many of the minority youth wearing zoot suits were affiliated with gangs in their communities or engaged in crime on their own. Also, at the time zoot suits became popular, the United States was getting geared for and involved in the Second World War. The extravagance on the fabric and the accessories was considered wasteful and unpatriotic, and the crackdown on zoot suiters by the military and police led to widespread riots in the country.
During the period of widespread riots, crime, and crackdowns, the media in the country portrayed zoot suits as a minority crime and gang problem. Several newspapers published articles depicting gang criminal and violent activity being carried out by zoot suiters. The uniqueness of each incident was ignored, and the problem of crime carried out by individuals in zoot suits was generalized and oversimplified as a gang problem in colored communities. Although it was true that some gang members wore zoot suits and committed violent crimes in them, the media did not acknowledge or investigate each incident fully and instead propagated the stereotype of crime, violence, and gang activity among colored communities.
The zoot suit became a symbol of rebellion during the widespread zoot suit riots in the country. The extravagance of zoot suits was seen as a waste of resources that would have otherwise been diverted to the war efforts of the U.S. This belief, combined with the violence and crime associated with zoot suits in the streets led to an extensive crackdown by government agencies and the military on zoot suiters. The police and military action and outright brutality were mainly targeted at youths of color. Although some white youths had also adopted the zoot suits as a fashion statement, primarily white neighborhoods were not targeted in the crackdowns. People living in colored communities rioted to defend their fundamental rights and stop the harassment and brutality.
The racially motivated crackdowns drew the attention of senior government officials, and, fearing that it may derail the country’s war efforts, prompted the government to take action to end the riots. State and federal officials stated that the depiction of zoot suits and the zoot suit violence as racial and ethnical problems in the American society continued to propagate the stereotypes held against colored communities in the country. The government’s efforts to minimize and eventually bring the zoot suit riots to an end was crucial to the credibility of the U.S. in the eyes of the international community, enabling the country to advance its plans for the ongoing war.
The attitudes held by the media and the American society about people of color were rooted in the country’s long history of colonialism and slavery. Colored minorities in the country had long been subjected to unfair and inhumane treatment, denying them any opportunity for development. The continued oppression created a dangerous cycle of poverty and desperation among people of color, pushing many youths towards crime and violence to ensure survival and an income. Although many youths eventually found ways out of the difficult life of crime, the notion that young African American men are criminals had taken root and still exists today.
The zoot suit became a symbol of rebellion in the eyes of some, but for young people of color, it was a symbol of cultural and ethnic identity and freedom. However, the violence and riots associated with the zoot suit had severe consequences for many innocent civilians, leading to a ban on zoot suits in many states. To today, zoot suits are still illegal in some states like California. The suit is still celebrated as a mark of not only fashion but also cultural identity by many colored communities today, and its significance in American history cannot be ignored or downplayed.
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