The zoot suit is perhaps the most powerful item of clothing in American history. It has sparked race riots and defined entire subcultures. Depending on who wore it and when, the zoot suit has represented things from class solidarity, protest against racism, anti-war efforts, and more. For Las Pachucas, young Chicanx women, in 1940s Los Angeles, the zoot suit was a statement of protest against white supremacy, a call for gender equality, and a sartorial choice.
The style grew out of Black dancehalls and balls in 1930s Harlem, where dancers found oversized suits with cuffed pants to be the most flattering outfit for revelry. Loose fabric could sway with the wearer’s body, but without a cuff at the ankle dancers might trip. With this in mind, local manufacturers designed oversized suits with a tapered pant. Soon, men all over Harlem wore the unique style: loose, ballooning trousers cropped tight at the ankle and a long jacket with padded shoulders, often accessorized with a long watch chain or chic matching hat.
The outfit was a symbol of personal wealth and achievement. Zoot suits required extra fabric for draping, so they were not cheap. In his autobiography, Malcolm X vividly describes how at age 15 he saved up to buy his first one: “Sky-blue pants 30 inches in the knee and angle narrowed down to 12 inches at the bottom, and a long coat that pinched my waist and flared out below my knees.”
After gaining popularity in Harlem, the look spread to urban centers across the country where it became popular with many marginalized groups. It is now is perhaps best associated with X or with Chicanx labor organizer Cesar Chavez.
In Los Angeles, the look became a symbol of unapologetic Chicanx pride. For Pachucos, a subset of Mexican-American youth, the suit asserted pride in one’s ethnic and racial identity. White Angelinos, however, interpreted Chicanx pride as a threat to law and order. White supremacy shaped government systems, interpersonal interaction, and business behavior. The Pachuco look crystalized during the Mexican Repatriation; from 1929 to 1944 the U.S. government forcibly deported approximately two million people of Mexican descent.
In wearing something that asserted pride in non-white heritage, Los Pachucos threatened Los Angeles’ unjust racial order. Plus, the zoot suit’s emphasis on a man’s hips and waist challenged white America’s perception of masculinity, and white Angelinos often derided Pachucos for being feminine.
Of course, the suits were not limited to men. Las Pachucas made their own unique political statement with zoot pants or skirt suits. Unapologetic Chicanx pride was just as threatening to white Angelinos coming from women, if not more so. Las Pachucas appropriated male clothing, which constituted a groundbreaking gender-queering fashion.
American perceptions of womanhood changed greatly in the early 1940s. The United States entered World War II in 1941, and quickly mobilized into a total war society. Rosie the Riveter needed women to go and fight for their country by working in factories; the War Production Board (WPB) rationed all types of goods. In March, 1942, the WPB declared a standard dress pattern for women to limit excess fabric. Though zoot skirt suits used less material than men’s pantsuits, the Pachuca staple was thus seen as explicitly unpatriotic.
Plus, Pachucas often complimented their masculine pieces with hyper feminine ones. Heavy makeup, tight shirts, and impeccably coiffed bangs were Pachuca staples. With this suggestive look, Pachucas took agency over their own sexuality. They were one of many groups of women who have used menswear or provocative clothing to empower themselves, but they were met with derision from both within and outside the Chicanx community.
In Luis Valdez’ hit 1981 Zoot Suit, a film about young Pachucos and Pachucas in the wake of the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder, a mother yells at her daughter to scrub her face lest she “look like a Pachuca.” The same mother begs all her children to be careful wearing zoot suits—they know what police will think of them if they get into trouble—but only cautions her daughter about perceived sexual promiscuity.
In both Zoot Suit and in reality, Los Angeles media sensationalized the event, printing random photos of Pachucos and Pachucas who were completely unconnected to the murder. This press coverage confirmed many white Angelino’s deep-seated belief that young Chicanx men and women caused civil unrest and moral decay. Twelve young Mexican-American men were falsely convicted for the murder, and the media’s popular hate speech lead to increased racism and hate crimes against the Chicanx community.
In response to the Sleepy Lagoon coverage, La Opinión, LA’s most popular Spanish-language daily, blamed Las Pachucas for white LA’s anger. There are also many historical reports of sexual violence against Pachucas from white individuals in positions of power (especially police).
The Sleepy Lagoon murder coverage spurred the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, a week-long uproar during which white servicemen attacked anyone they could find wearing a zoot suit. Uniformed army men violently shredded clothing off of Pachucos’ and Pachucas’ bodies. Clothing had become a symbol of culture and survival. “I paid for my outfit and nobody is going to take it off me,” one Pachuca woman said.
In a society that denied them many conventional opportunities for wealth accumulation or self expression, this style of clothing constituted a rebellion against systemic race-based poverty and conservative gender norms. Their aesthetic was representative of the ways in which they chose to live their lives. Many would go out, sometimes with men, sometimes not, and just take up space and hang out in public.
“I thought Pachucas were so cool,” Chicanx studies scholar Dr. Rosa-Linda Fregoso said. “They took over the street and taught me that it wasn’t only a male space.” Pachucx faces and bodies populated the streets, theatres, and even police stations. In making themselves publicly visible, they demanded recognition. When sociologist Catherine Ramírez interviewed former Pachucas, she found that about half dressed for explicit political reasons, and another half wore what made them feel good.
The bold, powerful look still influences fashion today. In homage to icons like Cab Calloway, jazz legend Clive Davis often wears Zoot-inspired looks. Trendy It girl label Re/Done makes a series of ‘40s style pleated zoot jeans, and women wear oversize suits on the runway and the red carpet. For its Spring/Summer 2020 womenswear collectin, Balmain presented oversized zoot-influenced suits of many colors and fabrics. Jacquemus’ Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter 2020 collections also included plenty of oversized, broad-shouldered jackets.
In these new contexts, the meaning of the Pachuca symbol has changed greatly. It is often worn not deliberately as an homage to Black or Chicanx culture, but rather as a general statement of female empowerment through menswear-inspired clothing. Still, even when stripped from its original powerful connotation, the Pachuca look continues to empower many. The Pachuca influence also gave way to new Chicanx youth culture trends, which continue to define the very ethos of perseverance for many in Los Angeles.
In the words of writer and artist Barbara Calderón-Douglass, the contemporary aesthetic shaped by the Pachuca look “embodies the remarkable strength and creative independence it takes to survive in a society where your social mobility has been thwarted by racism. The chola identity was conceived by a culture that dealt with gang warfare, violence, and poverty on top of conservative gender roles. The clothes these women wore were more than a fashion statement—they were signifiers of their struggle and hard-won identity.”END
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