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Zoot Suit Riots | Article

Zoot Suit Culture


Initally an African American youth fashion, closely connected to jazz culture, the zoot suit was co-opted by a generation of Mexican American kids, who made it their own.

The oversized suit was both an outrageous style and a statement of defiance. Zoot suiters asserted themselves, at a time when fabric was being rationed for the war effort, and in the face of widespread discrimination.

Zoot suits were reserved for special occasions — a dance or a birthday party. The amount of material and tailoring required made them luxury items. Many kids wore a toned-down version of the "draped" pants or styled their hair in the signature "ducktail."

Step back into 1943 ... and find out more about zoot suit culture.




The Fashion
Arthur Arenas

Levi's and a T-shirt and brogues. They used to call them brogues. It's a shoe that you would buy at Price's, and they would double-sole them and put horseshoes in the heels and get your argyle socks, because when you wore Levi's, you've got to show the socks. That was the thing, and you roll up your Levi's on the bottom, you know, about so high, and that was the fashion, you know, or corduroys.

The Zoot Suit
George Sanchez

I think for the most part, like youth of any generation, the zoot suit was a symbol of one's own generational style. There was a kind of assertiveness in the dress. A sense that this was unique. This was to really assert that, you know, we are here, and we want to make a statement about the fact that we're here. But it was also, I think, a connection with other minority and poor youth in the United States. I mean, a zoot suit was also worn by black youth, certainly worn by Malcolm X in New York. So there was a sense that the zoot suit was not just a Mexican dress, it was also a connection with other minority youth, but in Los Angeles also was representative of the Mexican American population, in a certain way.

Looking Good
Carlos Espinoza

When we started as zoot suiters, they were just like a fad, that's what it was. And they looked good on all the guys. They looked real sharp, and then if you had a lot of us who would spend that much, double the money and buy our wives, or girlfriends at that time, a suit to match so when we went down to the dance you would look good in the suit made out of the same material. Shark skin was the best, right? Shark skin suits in different colors and all that. They were nice.

Cuffs, Shoes and Hat
Carlos Espinoza

For the cuffs you could, you could use size 12, size 14, if you went to the tailor he would measure you up and you would tell him if you wanted it, it would cost you by the inch, the coat. Fingertip. But if you wanted it one inch longer, you would pay that much more money for it. And that's it, right? Yes. And then we all had featherweight shoes, real expensive featherweight shoes for dancing. We didn't have no thick soles or nothing like that.

The hat, some guys wore a hat. I never wore, hardly ever wore mine, hardly ever. Or just once in a while you would wear it. But if you had good hair, then you had to comb it like a little duck tail in the back, right? Wrap around. And that was it. Yes. And your shirts were good, those shirts. You got some good shirts, right? Good shirts to match.

The Semi-Drape
Arthur Arenas

A semi-drape is not completely an ankle choker. It was maybe a 16 bottom, instead of a 14 bottom. You see, you have 20 bottoms. You have 18. You have 16. You have 14. You know, guys had small ankles. They had ankle chokers. They used to call them ankle chokers, you know? So I was wearing semi-drape that was probably, you know, 15, you know? And the thigh would come down like this, and it would come down to a point, so that made it a semi, you know? Well, it was sort of a style that was going on for the zoot suiter, you know? And I looked at it and I said, gee, I mean I don't want to go extreme. I'll just go semi. You know, make it look different, a little different.

You couldn't go to school with them. You'd wear them maybe on the weekend, when you go to, you know, a theater downtown or go to a party, you know? But it wasn't — it wasn't gang-related. It was just a style that came out, you know? And a lot of guys wore semi-drape, not only me, a lot of guys. And they weren't extreme drapes. They were semi. They looked nice.

Extreme Zoot Suits
Arthur Arenas

They went to extreme. They went to extreme, you know? Man, they wore a big hat and a feather and a chain dragging down there, ankle chokers, and a long — they used to call it fingertip, below the fingers, you know, way down, you know? That was it, and you says man, that guy is wearing an expensive, you know. You go to Murray's and you'd buy that outfit, you know? Murray's was on Third and Main. That's the only place you could buy these zoot suit things, you know? What can I tell you? And the shoe store, Price's, on Sixth and Broadway, you'd get lined up just buying shoes there because they would double sole them. They would always double sole their shoes. They never walked out with a regular, you know, they'd walk out with those shoes and right away they would dye them black, and shine them and keep shining them, and then the grain would disappear, and all you'd see is a plain, beautiful shine, and then you'd get your argyle socks there...

Wearing the Zoot Suit
Carlos Espinoza

I felt good. I felt good because in the neighborhood you were all right, and then you went to the dance and we were all, there was a lot of guys who didn't wear zoot suits. A lot of guys didn't, no. And a lot of guys would have a zoot suit and somebody else's friend, because their mother wouldn't never, the parent didn't like it. So some of the guys would go down to their neighbor's house and put the zoot suit on, and then go to the dance. And they would come back and take it off, and put their Levi's on and go home when they had trouble with it. Yes.

A Parent's View
Arthur Arenas

My mama said don't go haywire, don't go any further than that, you know? That looks pretty good, but don't get carried away. She used to tell me that, my mama. And I did what she told me.

Well, she said you know, you might be innocently at a party and some gang might come in and they'll knife you or something. They'll think that you belong to a gang. And that's what goes on now. You know what I mean? You know, that's what's happening now, but in those days you go to a party and you look at a guy and the guy looks at you and says where are you from, or something like that? And right away there's trouble. You know what I mean? But if you wore, you know, regular like bell bottom slacks, you know, in other words you weren't in that style, you know, they wouldn't look at you twice. They thought maybe you were from a gang or something, you know?

Girls' Style
Lupe Leyvas

During the forties we had the very miniskirts that are very much in today. We have very short skirts, and long jackets that went the same length as our skirts. Our socks would be almost to our knee. Sometimes we would wear white boots with tassels.

Our hairdos were high pompadours, flowers in our hair -- mostly artificial flowers. When we wore dresses, we'd have like sweetheart necks, very low waisted, and very full at the bottom, so when we turned and danced, there was a lot of room for our knees. A lot of jewelry.

It took a while to fix our hair the way we wanted to. We would get an extra piece of hair wrapped in gauze, or whatever, and make like a little pillow, pin it to our hair, and then pin our own hair over it, so it would stay up. Eventually we got into teasing our hair straight up, so it would stay up. Also, that same [net], we would make it into a long strip. We would tie it around our head, and then tuck in the hair all around so it made like a crown all around. Or, at that time we had at the time what was the beehive hair. We would start with making one little ringlet with bobby pins, and then two, then four, then eight and it was a beehive, but it took a long time. It was done all with bobby pins, and stayed up that way. It looked just like a beehive.

Lupe Leyvas

Our parents, mine, never really objected to the way we dressed. My father would say, "That skirt is too short," but they would never say, "Take it off, change." We, too, respected their feelings. Many times I wore my skirt just above my knee until I got around the corner, then I'd roll it up at the waist so that it would be really short. Then coming back from school, we'd just pull them down. We knew they didn't really like that, but they didn't object.

Music and Dance


The Big Band Scene
Arthur Arenas

Well, I'll tell you, when I went to a dance I would go to a nice place like the Palladium, Casino Gardens, where the big bands were. We followed the big bands. We were in a big band era, you know, and we followed the bands, and we'd dance at the — you couldn't get in the Palladium without a tie and you couldn't — absolutely not go in with a pair of drapes. That was out. You'd get — the cops would take you out, you know? You went dressed up real nice, you know? And that's the way it was, you know? A lot of guys would dress up in zoot suits and go to the night clubs in Boyle Heights. That's where all the zoot suits were, and that's where all the fights were, you know? And the police and all that. But I was dancing somewhere else with big band music, you know?

Dance Halls
Gloria Berlin

There were lights, exciting lights. They had a huge mirrored ball and they shone different colors on it. And there was a lot of romantic music and they would dim the lights when you would dance to Embraceable You. Or there was a song called Sentimental Journey that everybody liked and loved very much because it told about the war, the Sentimental Journey, home, very romantic ballads which I really thoroughly enjoyed along with the jitterbugging. There was a lot of exciting dancing and songs pertaining to jitterbugging. I wish there were dance halls like that again.

When I walked into these ballrooms, it was exciting because you would see a variety of men some dressed in white sailor suits, some in royal blue with brass and others in just green army suits and khakis. And you would see the zoot suiters too. And it was quite an exciting thing because the woman felt cherished. Everyone wanted to dance with her and came out to ask for a dance. I danced with several different people at every ballroom — all ages and all denominations.

Downtown L.A.
Arthur Arenas

There were a lot of blacks, a lot of Mexicans. Yes. They would go to their theaters that they like, you know? And if you liked big band music, you know, swing, let's put it that way — swing music, you know — not jazz — swing music. The jazz was always around, but not in the theater. There was swing music, you know? And you had your choice, because it was packed. Everybody would go downtown. You'd see every color and creed downtown.

First you had like the Million Dollar Theater on Third and Broadway, and then you had the Orpheum Theater on Eighth — between Eighth and Ninth on Broadway. Now, that's where the big bands would show up at. The other theater, like the Roxy or something — R.K.O. -- they didn't have any stage, you know, big bands, and there was once a Paramount Theater on Sixth and Hill — they turned it into a parking lot. The big bands were there too. So we'd go to the big bands, you know, but they allowed guys to go in there with their drapes — in the theaters. They had to make money some way or another, and the big bands were there, you know? And then — that was at the Orpheum and the Million Dollar and the Paramount. Now, they're all — they're closed now.

You'd see a lot of servicemen down there, you know? Especially on Main Street — not Broadway — Main Street, because you had a lot of penny arcades. They had penny arcades, and they had girls, you know, working the bars, you know, and the servicemen would get off on the station there on Main Street, you know, and walk all over Main Street — not too much on Broadway. Where were they going to go? A man's store to buy a suit or something like that? Main Street had everything: penny arcades, you know, the burlesque — it was beautiful, you know?

Pachuco Attitude
Arthur Arenas

The pachuco will not move. All they do is get the girls arm like that, and she go around him, and he put his arm out this way, and then she go around about three times, and he go like that, because that guy was not going to move. Stationary pachuco. You know what I mean. It wasn't like the jitterbug bunch. 

You twirl and everything and you turn around too, but not the pachuco. He was órale, see? You know, it's my day, you know. He don't want to mess up his pants. And he didn't want to — you know? He didn't want to wrinkle the coat or nothing.

The Pachuco Hop
Gloria Berlin

I remember the pachuco hop, it's just like hip hop. I remember the pachuco hop because I tried to do it. If I happened to dance with a zoot suiter, I would try to do the pachuco hop. And if I was dancing with a serviceman, I'd just do straight jitterbugging. I mean, you have to adjust to your partner, you know, especially when you're at a dance. I had a lot of fun dancing. I did a lot of dancing as a matter of fact. And I even went to see Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra.

The pachuco hop was wonderful. It was just another version, it was like a Latin version, there was Latin swing and Latin jitterbugging along with there being the regular music, American music of that time, the popular music that existed in those days.

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