Zoot Suits



Shot in 1983 for LIFE magazine, for a story re old neons and old cars here in Tucson, Arizona

What is a zoot suit? A zoot suit is a suit with a high waist, wide legs, and cuffed pants. The coat is long and oversized with lapels.

The people that actually wore the suits called themselves pachucos. Many African and Mexican American men wore zoot suits during the 1930s and 1940s. The meaning behind wearing these suits was so that they could be seen and display a political presence.

An increase of Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. in the 1900s due to the Mexican Revolution. They wanted to escape the violence, and the U.S. was the closest place to go. Unfortunately, despite moving to the U.S, they still couldn’t escape violence. They were often discriminated against, and the zoot suiters were the most targeted.

One reason why Americans targeted them was because the suits contained wool, which, during WWII, was supposed to be rationed due to it being a raw material. This only worsened attitudes towards people who wore the suits, and people labeled them as being “un-American.”

The Zoot Suit Riots took place during the summer of 1943; tension was high between the zoot-suiters and U.S. servicemen, such as white sailors, soldiers, and marines. There were a number of Mexican American men in the military, but the zoot suiters were seen as WWII draft dodgers, when in actuality, many were too young to enlist into the army. These tensions increased on May 31 when service men and Mexican American men brawled and, as a result, a U.S sailor was beaten.

Later, on June 3, around 50 sailors from the U.S. Naval Reserve Armory went around the Los Angeles area carrying weapons such as clubs. They went out to try to attack anyone with a zoot suit. The following days were filled with chaos and a number of riots. Servicemen once again returned to the streets and attacked anyone with the zoot suit, and they also stripped the suits off of them.

A number of police officers watched as the chaos continued. They would then arrest the victims, and after a week of violence, luckily no one was killed. The riots eventually died down by June 8.