Friday, June 3, 2011

The Girl is...thinking about Zoot Suits.


A friend reminded me that today is the anniversary of the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots. That seems like an excellent way to kick off my brand spankin’ new blog!

Zoots figure prominently in The Girl is Murder, the first Iris Anderson mystery which comes out in just a few brief weeks. In my case the suits in question are being donned on the East Coast in 1942. 

So what were zoot suits? The large, baggy suits with tapered pants, padded shoulders, and made of loud fabrics (bright colors, huge pinstripes) were worn by youth during the 1930s 1940s and became closely associated with jazz music and swing dancing, since so many of those who donned them also frequented swing clubs (they were also style de riguer for the musicians in these clubs). The majority of those who wore the “zoot” were Mexican-American, African-America, and Italian-American youth, people on the fringe, so to speak, who were looking to express themselves and to remind society that they knew they were outsiders. They spoke in swing slang, wore their watches on long waist chains, and roamed together with like minded peers.

Sounds pretty innocent, right? But the suit wasn’t just a costume. It became a symbol for a lot of complex things. The war changed families. With fathers gone and mothers working, delinquency was on the rise because there was no one at home to monitor young people’s behavior. The zoot became associated with this lawless youth, a new class of criminals committing petty crimes out of boredom. And because these suits were oversized and involved a lot of fabric, which was a luxury during war since fabric needed to be used to make military uniforms, purchasing and wearing the zoot was seen as an act of national defiance, a wasteful way of thumbing your nose at the war effort (in fact, you had to go to a back alley tailor to even get them made). And that’s what ultimately led to the clash between soldiers and the zoot suiters in LA, and similar, riots in other parts of the country. 

And now a musical interlude:

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