Created by New York City jazz performers in the 1930s, zoot suits were men’s suits with baggy legs, high waistbands, long coats, and wide lapels that were worn as status symbols amongst LA and New York Latine, Black, and Filipino youths. During the 40s and 50s, the suits became heavily associated with west coast Latino subcultures, including Pachucos and Chicanos.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. began to ration fabric to save materials for the war effort. This meant that wide cut suits and full-length skirts and dresses could no longer be made. However, demand for zoot suits did not fall. Youths still wore their old suits, and bootleg tailors began making new suits.
When soldiers and sailors traveled or were given leave in LA, they came into conflict with Latines. They accused Latines of being unpatriotic, gaudy, and dodging the draft (despite the fact that Latines made up about 30% of the army). This led to violent arguments between the zoot suiters and the military.
On June 3, 1943, sailors got off a bus in LA and encountered a group of young Latines in zoot suits, resulting in a fight. The sailors told the LAPD that they were walking and were jumped and beaten by the “gang” of young Latines. The “zoot suiters”, on the other hand, claimed that they had been insulted by the sailors and were defending their honor. The next day, about 200 sailors traveled to East LA and began to assault and strip anyone dressed in a zoot suit. After they were taken, the suits were burned.
As the riots spread, over 150 people were injured and 500 were arrested. Of the 500, all were Latines, arrested for rioting and vagrancy; none of the attackers were given the same treatment. The press did very little to stop and even discourage the attacks; many praised the attacks, claiming that they were “cleansing” Los Angeles of miscreants and hoodlums.
After the attacks, people were concerned about the effect it would have on relations with Mexico, as Southern California relied heavily on the cheap labor of Mexican-Amercians to harvest crops. Many white Americans were pleased with the attacks, with some convinced that the zoot suiters were Nazi or Soviet spies. Scholars, especially those of Latin descent, view the Zoot Suit Riots as a “pogrom against the Mexican American community.”