The Zoot Suit Riots: When Fashion And Racism Erupted Into Violence
Sometimes, fashion is something you have to fight for.
In the summer of 1943, Los Angeles erupted in a series of brawls and beatings known today as the Zoot Suit Riots. The fighting broke out between two different sides of America. On one end were white American servicemen and on the other were Mexican-, African-, and Filipino-American youths who were given to wearing the oversized zoot suits that were so fashionable at the time.
These zoot suits were long, baggy, and took an awful lot of fabric to make. Those who wore them saw this as hip and fashionable, but some servicemen only saw a waste of fabric during wartime, when rationing was more important than ever. To them, these zoot suits were practically treason.
At first, the suits prompted nothing more than a little hostility and the odd spat – but racist tensions heated up after a Mexican boy named José Gallardo Díaz was mysteriously found dead with a fractured skull. The courts threw the blame on a group of Mexican youth associated with wearing zoot suits despite there being little to no evidence. In the mind of white American, Mexican teens, especially those in zoot suits, thus became linked with gang warfare.
From then on, things would get violent. In June of 1943, servicemen started walking down the streets of Los Angeles with clubs in their hands, looking for young men in zoot suits to hurt. Some servicemen beat their victims right there in the streets, others tore off their victims' clothes and burned them in piles. One group pulled a Mexican in front of a crowd, tore off his zoot suit, and urinated on it.
The zoot suiters did their share of fighting, too. Some would start fist-fights with sailors who tried to flirt with Mexican girls. Others took advantage of the chaos to mug people; in one case, threatening to cut off a woman’s finger unless she handed over her engagement ring.
When the police moved in, though, they arrested far more Mexicans than servicemen. About 500 Latino youths were brought into rapidly overflowing prisons.
Things calmed down in time. The boys accused of Diaz's death were exonerated, a bigger race riot in Detroit took over the nation's attention, and the fighting over fashion (at least ostensibly) died down.