Book Review: Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style

Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style (May 23, 2011, University of Pennsylvania Press)

By Kathy Peiss

Review by Rachel Harris

I’m thrilled to bring you today’s book review from Rachel Harris. A graduate of the NYU Master of Arts in Visual Culture: Costume Studies program, Rachel Harris has been with the FIDM Museum since 2006. In her current position, she manages the Museum’s social media profile, while also creating social media content. Many thanks for her thoughtful review:

The zoot suit silhouette, with its exaggerated shoulders, extended jacket and baggy trousers, is generally interpreted as an example of aesthetics as political protest. In her new book Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style, Kathy Peiss argues against this straightforward interpretation, suggesting instead that zoot suits generated a “proliferation of meanings.” Relying on primary source information, including newspaper articles, satirical cartoons, song lyrics and film, Peiss methodically builds a convincing case for a multilayered interpretation of the zoot suit. In its interest in debunking sacred myths about the zoot suit, Peiss’ work is akin to Valerie Steele’s rethinking of the corset. As Steele did with her book The Corset: A Cultural History (2001), Peiss strives to complicate our understanding of a specific garment.

Mexican American in a Zoot Suit (Via Los Angeles Public Library)

In the first chapter, Making the Zoot Suit, Peiss demonstrates that the bold, almost theatrical silhouette of the zoot suit grew out of historical antecedents, pointing out specific groups of men who rejected the 19th century imperative to dress in a subdued, dark suit. Immigrants, students and African-American minstrels figure in this history. Peiss also suggests that the zoot suit might have simply been the logical endpoint of 1930s casual male dress, which featured baggy pants and broad shoulders. Like most scholars of the zoot suit, Peiss is unable to pinpoint the exact origins of the contemporary iteration of the zoot suit, but suggests that it emerged almost simultaneously in a variety of locations, including Harlem, Memphis and Los Angeles.

Photo by John Ferrell, June, 1942. The original caption read: "Washington, D.C. Soldier inspecting a couple of "zoot suits" at the Uline Arena during Woody Herman's Orchestra engagement there." Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326

In chapter two, Going to Extremes, Peiss confirms the origins of the zoot suit with African American men, and also documents the spread of the style to other groups, including Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans and others. Though the style was discussed in media, Peiss notes that it was essentially a street fashion, developed and propagated outside the fashion system. Peiss makes an important point here, noting that few wearers of the zoot suit left written records of their feelings about the zoot suit. This lack of evidence complicates attempts to posit the zoot suit as a form of political protest.

Chapter three, Into the Public Eye, describes the dissemination of the zoot suit through popular media, including satirical cartoons, film, music and comics. (In media portrayals, the zoot suit was a marker of African American identity, a signifier of social deviance, or both. This understanding of the zoot suit is clearly demonstrated by a 1943 Donald Duck cartoon, The Spirit of ’43.  Though some believed the zoot suit was simply a style of dressing; others felt that the zoot suit was a clear signifier of a willingness to commit deviant or unlawful acts. This was particularly true in Los Angeles during and after the so-called “zoot suit riots” of summer 1943.

Chapter four, From Rags to Riot, discusses the Los Angeles riots in detail. In June of 1943, a group of navy men armed themselves with weapons and headed to downtown Los Angeles with the intent of seeking out Mexican American zoot suiters, also called pachucos. On finding a pachuco, the sailors removed the offending suit and beat the wearer. This violence spread, resulting in several days of riots and beatings throughout the city. Peiss’ argues that the riots were the eruption of long simmering racial and social tensions in Los Angeles. Peiss suggests that the pachucos and other zoot suiters were simply easily spotted targets and not representatives of a larger political or social movement.

Suspected members of a Pachuca gang called the Black Widows taken into police custody. (Los Angeles Times 9 August 1942)

The events in Los Angeles spurred widespread analysis and public discussion regarding the meaning of the zoot suit. In Chapter 5, Reading the Riddle, Peiss analyzes these discussions, while also discussing changing perceptions of the zoot suit. In the wake of the riots, zoot suiters were widely considered deviants, though some took a more sympathetic view of the style, suggesting it was simply aesthetically appealing. When social movements of the late 1960s and ‘70s cultivaled a belief that the personal is inherently political, the zoot suit suddenly morphed from a style of dressing to a political gesture. Peiss credits this change to a new mode of analytic interpretation that viewed style, identity, politics and race as part of an interconnected web.

In what might be the most fascinating chapter, Zooting Around the World, Peiss follows the zoot suit as it makes its way outside of the United States. From the French zazous, to South African tsotis and the Russian stiliagi, the zoot suit jumped around the world, finding a home among disaffected youth. Peiss credits the international popularity of the zoot suit to the influence of Hollywood films and its striking visual profile. Again, Peiss argues that the adoption of the zoot suit was not a gesture of refusal, but the result of a variety of factors including authoritarian regimes, post World War II drabness, poverty and an interest in the United States.

Though Peiss’ attempts to complicate readings of the zoot suit are admirable, her insistence on reading the style as anything other than political gesture seems reactionary. Though she is correct in suggesting that the standard interpretation is overly simplistic, Peiss dismisses readings of the zoot suit as subversive largely because of a lack of personal accounts of wearing the zoot suit. This stands in contrast to some fashion historians, who might argue that the extreme silhouette of the zoot suit is a challenge in itself, whether or not there is existing documentation regarding the intent of the wearer. It also suggests that external perceptions of dress are insignificant when interpreting personal style, a position that seems untenable.

Finally, as a believer in the importance of blending object study with other methods of analysis, I was left wondering, Where’s the suit? At no point does Peiss indicate that she has examined or attempted to examine an actual zoot suit. Though it might be hard to find extant examples of a zoot suit within museum collections, surely there are zoot suits out there.  Though there is a wealth of archival detail and information to recommend in this book, I suspect an understanding of the material realities of an actual zoot suit might have enriched Peiss’ analysis.

Other reading:

Catherine S. Ramírez’s The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory (Duke University Press 2008).

Additional Images: Los Angeles Zoot Suit Grand Jury Hearing via Los Angeles Public Library.

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