Stuart Cosgrove's "The Zoot Suit and Style Warfare"
by Sydney Kipen
In his article “The Zoot Suit and Style Warfare,” Stuart Cosgrove confronts the importance of the zoot suit in the 1940s as an iconic symbol that arose in a time of conflict. He investigates the evolvement of the zoot suit from something associated with urban jazz culture to a symbol of revolt for young rebels, predominately African and Mexican Americans wanting to be heard.
Coordinate with the rise of the zoot suit, were the “zoot suit riots;” the conflict that the suit caused with its rebellious connotations. Cosgrove asserts that the zoot suit was “an emblem of ethnicity and a way of negotiating an identity” (137). He explores the social and political importance of the suit especially during the year of 1943 when the zoot suit riots began to erupt. The zoot suit, as Cosgrove describes, became the “uniform” of young rioters and a symbol of rebellion and delinquency.
Zoot Suit 1942
Originally ascribed unfavorably to young African American rebels, it also became associated with Mexican-American youths, known as “pachucos.” A group “stripped of their customs, beliefs and language” when they came to America, the pachuco subculture became synonymous with showy fashion, crime, and drug use; a rebellious group to say the least. Cosgrove notes that zoot suit wearers used the zoot suit to announce their alienation and separation from mainstream society.
Cosgrove credits America’s involvement in World War II as the cause for the increase in delinquency and juvenile crime. Young rebels had more opportunities to act on their own, further instigating the zoot suit riots. The riots became more prevalent with the connation behind the zoot suit: that one who wore it was one who did not fit in. During war time rationing, the manufacturing of zoot suits was forbidden, highlighting the rebellious connotations that came with the zoot suit; “wearing a zoot suit was a deliberate and public way of flouting the regulations of rationing,” and the law (139). Cosgrove describes the fights between zoot suiters, most often gang members, and servicemen that involved arrests, attacks, and excessive violence. Zoot suit attacks also included female gangs, widely disproving gender stereotypes.
The zoot suit, as Cosgrove says, was the uniform of the attacker and the attacked: “To wear a zoot suit was to risk the repressive intolerance of wartime society” (144). The zoot suit riots were a seg-way for participants into a world of politics and power associated with an outfit.