Zoot-suit Culture and the Black Press

Bruce Tyler. Journal of American Culture. Volume 17, Issue 2. Summer 1994.

During World War II blacks were nationally identified as Zoot-Suiters, and New York’s Harlem was considered by some as the Zoot-Suit capital. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in the film Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Cab Calloway in Stormy Weather (1943) donned Zoot-Suits and made them synonymous with blacks. But many whites, such as Italians and Mexicans in Los Angeles, wore them too.

Several reasons were basic for youths wearing Zoot-Suits. Some were declaring their independence from parents, society and their social and cultural norms. For others, it was a spontaneous youth movement. Some youths adopted it as the proper costume for jitterbugging on the dance floor. A very small minority used it as a cover for crime and gang activity (Rogers 259-61). Horace R. Cayton said this element had a “Bigger Thomas mentality” (a reference to the protagonist in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son who accidentally killed a white girl [Cayton 13]). Bigger Thomas a was a ghetto youth whose criminal activity resulted from anti-social behavior brought on by racial discrimination and segregation which restricted his opportunities for employment and social mobility in mainstream American society.

Zoot-Suit culture was an invented tradition, a youth culture. Eric Hobsbawm defined an invented tradition this way: “Inventing tradition…is essentially a process of formalization and ritualization, characterized by reference to the past, if only by imposing repetition” (Hobsbawm and Ranger 4). The black press and films featuring popular black entertainers helped spread the wearing of Zoot-Suits. The black press, by portraying Zoot-Suiters as criminals or as persons dressed in the latest fashion, conducted “rituals of status elevation” of Blacks and at the same time reflected “rituals of status reversal” to defy white authority and culture (Turner 167).

Noel Dyck’s study of the recent Indian “Political Powwow” movement on the West Coast from Canada to New Mexico helps to shed light on the Zoot-Suiters and their culture and influence on black and white society. Dyck said that urban Indians took over the traditional Indian culture and “Powwow” and eclipsed the power and authority of traditional leaders still on the reservations. They thereby gained social and cultural authority over Indian affairs in the national governments of Canada and the United States (Dyck 165-84). Zoot-Suiters threatened to do the same in black social and cultural life. The black assimilationists felt threatened by Zooters because they appeared to be too militant. Also, they rejected white culture and authority, threatening the civil-rights movement because many whites resented black Zoot-Suiters as troublemakers in their outlandish dress.

Black Zoot-Suiters were perceived as carefree party-goers and draft-dodgers who rejected patriotism and unity during World War II. Similarly, the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was dominated by blacks and mulattoes. Groups called “blocos, with their own songs and sambas, often subversive of the regime and not at all respecters of its persons” dominated. “In addition, countless people dressed in their ‘private fantasies’ stroll, flirt, get drunk, and make love in the streets and squares….” The submerged underclass blacks used the Carnival in Rio to elevate their status and reverse the status of the wealthy and powerful political and bureaucratic leaders (Turner 130-31). Zoot-Suiters threatened to do the same in the United States during World War II. This generated widespread concern among the black press, civil rights leaders and local and national authorities seeking to restrict the use of cloth needed for uniforms for the armed services.

The black press attempted to counter black Zoot-Suiters with their own “status degradation ceremony.” That is “any communicative work between persons, whereby the public identity of an actor is transformed into something looked on as lower in the local scheme of social types, will be called a ‘status degradation ceremony’.” In this theory, “total” identity is explained by “motivational” and not “behavioral” types” (Garfinkel 68-77). The Zoot-Suiters were accused of crime and chaos. They were motivated to do evil.

Motivational types are crucial because they indicate an intent to do evil rather than let it happen by chance. A violator of taboos must be denounced so as to arouse the moral indignation of the community and to cast shame, guilt, demoralization and punishment on the person or community denounced. Thus, the curse: “I call upon all men to bear witness that he is not as he appears but is otherwise and in essence of a lower species” (Garfinkel 68). Moreover, this was his “basic reality” (50). In other words, Zoot-Suiters in black urban communities already had been denounced for crime, violence, riots and drug abuse. As a result, white people’s moral indignation had been aroused repeatedly to support a racially restrictive social order enforced by police.

Some in the black press realized the danger black Zoot-Suiters represented to their social and cultural authority as well as to the perceived well-being of the black community. The black press sought to suppress blacks’ wearing Zoot-Suits and their culture to protect the black community from further ostracism and repression. But the black press was ambivalent about black Zoot-Suiters because that was a style which prominent black entertainers adopted. Often these high-profile blacks were regarded as high achievers and a credit to the black race because of their recognition by whites.

The Zoot-Suit garb was extremely symbolic. A long, broad, square-shoulders coat, almost reaching the knee, gave youth an adult, manly look. It was a “macho” symbol. The finger-tipped coat exuded leisure and fun; it certainly was the opposite of the peon or share-cropper garb with pulled-up sleeves ready for arduous work, usually performed at extremely low wages. A long brass or silver-plated chain hung from a belt loop, reaching to the knee or beyond with a key, watch or an Italian stiletto pocket knife. It was popular to stand around twirling the change in a leisurely fashion. Time spent in leisure and dancing were considered serious business. The business of fun, dancing and dating were the key characteristics displayed by Zoot-Suiters. It was an escape from drudgery and futile labor to the bliss of free-wheeling movement in the city among youths in the new youth culture.

The long, baggy “draped” pants with “stuffed” cuffs at the ankles were symbolic of the wobbly legs and knees of the dancer. It connoted the dexterity of the swinger and boogie woogie dancing effortlessly across the dance floor. It indicated to the girls that one was fast on his feet. The Mexicans wore extra thick soles on their shoes, a style often attributed to the art of kicking during fights. Blacks tended to wear expensive and fancy dress shoes for smooth and intricate dance steps. The wide-brimmed hats with a flat “pancake top” and a long feather were another indication of maturity, adulthood, and style (“Origin…” 69-70, Cayton 13, Rankin A3083).

The Zoot-Suit, with its exaggerated size in everything, symbolized the child in adult clothes playing grownup. Zoot-Suiters, however, were extremely serious about their role-playing. They were criticizing their parents and the adult world for their immaturity and folly for rejecting the new youth culture. Then too, the Zoot-Suit youth culture was an affirmation of the liberating aspects of urban life and its superiority over the drudgery, poverty and degradation of peonage and share-cropping life of many Mexicans and black people—especially their parents. These youths had rising expectations of a better life and celebrated their youth culture by dancing and parading in Zoot-Suits as a badge of their new status and aspirations.

Jazz and boogie woogie were important music styles which fueled the Zoot-Suit culture. This was especially true for blacks. J.A. Rogers, a black writer and historian, stated that “the true spirit of jazz is a joyous revolt from convention, customs, authority, boredom, even sorrow—from everything that would confine the soul of man and hinder its riding free on the air” (Rogers 665).

A Mexican girl on October 24, 1941 wrote a letter to her boyfriend in jail. She said in part: She’ll “get a black finger tip coat, and when you come home we can go to the Orpheum when the Duke comes with his band…and everybody’s jiving in his seat…so keen, so swell. Rhythm for reals” (Griffith 41).

Duke Ellington and his orchestra had played at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles in the spring of 1941 and in 1942 opened a musical extravaganza called “Jump for Joy,” which ran for months at the Orpheum. It ridiculed racism and stereotypes. One musical sketch was “I’ve Got a Passport from Georgia and I’m Going to the U.S.A.” The message made a clear impact on Mexican and black youth who took up the Zoot-Suit and militant ethnic and cultural pride and a rejection of white racism. Ellington stayed at the black-owned and operated and integrated Dunbar Hotel at 42nd Street and Central Avenue in the heart of the black community’s commercial and entertainment district (Zolotow, “The Duke’s…” 170-73, 223-24). Ellington was not allowed to stay at white hotels because of pervasive racial segregation. Whites and Mexicans were welcomed at the Dunbar and black clubs, and came not only to see Ellington at the Orpheum, but at Central Avenue hot spots, the heart of the black community in Los Angeles. “Jump for Joy” featured performers in Zoot-Suits, which also were called “Gone With The Wind” suits after the suits Clark Gable wore in the film (Wilson and Adams).

Some black musicians were resentful that white swing bands had cashed in on black swing styles because blacks were not widely accepted by white audiences or allowed to perform in certain white clubs, although they created the swing style. Bebop jazz was the black reaction. It was a revolutionary movement in music. “The boppers in fact, were the jazz militants of their day,” argued Stanley Dance, a jazz historian. They were in racial and cultural rebellion. Dance noted, “Decked out in goatees, berets and dark glasses, they derided entertainment values and accused older musicians of being Uncle Toms” (Dance). They believed that white musicians and audiences would not copy this type of music.

Black Zoot-Suiters were dedicated jitterbuggers and Lindy hoppers, and danced boogie woogie more than Mexicans. The Zoot-Suit was the dance garb that fitted blacks’ rebellious mood. Some blacks had a deep resentment of whites who tried to copy their dance style. Blacks felt that whites made their dance style “dirty” and was not the real “stuff.” Blacks, in their cultural rebellion, wanted an exclusive style. “They performed their dance with tribal fanaticism.” commented one observer (Redl, “Jitterbugs…” 25960 [hereafter cited as Mc-UCLA-clippings]). Jitterbugging was considered a serious business and an art form not to be taken lightly.

The black press’s portrayal of black Zoot-Suiters in cartoons tended to be ambivalent. Most poked pleasant fun at black Zoot-Suiters; others were very critical. Two broad themes were black Zoot-Suiters as civilians and in the military during World War II. The Pittsburgh Courier featured a cartoon of a black Zoot-Suiter at the quartermaster’s trying on a military hat and looking in a hand-held mirror while dressed in a Zoot-Suit and long dangling chain, exclaiming, “Nope, sarge, it ain’t me.” The black quartermaster has an angry scowl of disapproval on his face (Campbell 6 Jan. 1943). Another cartoon depicts a black soldier dressed in a Zoot-Suit and wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a cigarette in his hand looking at a shocked white officer who is apparently wondering what kind of uniform is the Zoot-Suit (Shearer 6 Feb. 1943). The white officer clearly recognized the Zoot-Suit as perhaps some kind of new military uniform. Horace R. Cayton said he visited the Jim Crow black military base at Fort Huachuca and reported, “I saw some soldiers who looked like they had Zoot-Suited their G.I. uniforms” (Cayton 13). The military dress code allowed only officers to modify their uniforms. Some blacks did so anyway. Another sketch showed a black in an Army uniform modified as a Zoot-Suit and with an airplane flying overhead. A white officer was whispering to him, “Better stay out of the wind with those (padded and wide) shoulders, lieutenant, you’re apt to take off” (Jackson 4 Oct. 1942).

A black Army officer at the Officers’ Club with a cigarette in his right hand and a jazz record in the other and album jackets with Eddie South, Lionel Hampton and Cab Calloway written on them, with two entranced white women looking on, declared, “Oh, I don’t believe in heredity. My mother was crazy about collecting phonograph records, but it never, but it never, but it never, but it never affected me” (Campbell 2 Jan. 1943). The clearly intended implication was that blacks naturally had rhythm, a characteristic these women apparently admired in the swing era. The depiction and accompanying words were meant to affirm and deny that blacks naturally had rhythm and it was something not easily acquired through simple adaptation.

Jazz and jive culture and language were taken into the military by blacks and military behavior was modified as a result. One sketch in the Pittsburgh Courier showed a black in military uniform blowing a trumpet and using his steel helmet as a plunger to mute the sounds coming out of his instrument (Campbell 6 Mar. 19 1943). Another sketch showed two black soldiers in Germany looking surprised with eyes bulging as one of the soldiers strutted in knee-high German military boots exclaiming, “Man, don’t you know I hadda knock off nine Germans before I got a pair to fit me” (24 July 1943). For blacks jazz and dress styles were obviously important to their morale. Most important, blacks took their cultural patterns into a rigid military hierarchy and bent the rules to suit their own racial and cultural patterns.

Blacks wrestled with “reconversion” from World War and a huge military machine to peace and civilian life with different concerns than those of the national government. On a personal level blacks’ concerns were captured in a sketch of two black soldiers looking at a picture of a black Zoot-Suiter wearing a wide-brimmed hat. One soldier said to the other, “Everybody else is talkin’ about reconversion, so I guess I better do some thinkin’ about it myself!” (Harrington 16). On the other hand, another sketch showed a short black whippy-looking soldier in regular uniform at his pre-war girlfriend’s apartment holding out a wide-brimmed Zoot-Suiter hat that belonged to his girlfriend’s companion, who was much taller and muscular, threatening him, “Hey, buddy! It’s time to go… ’cause I’m back an’ I’ve just won a sharp-shootin’ medal” (Shearer 27 Feb. 1943).

The black press also carried cartoons and columns on civilian black Zoot-Suit culture. The cartoons and columns reflected the same ambivalence as the military ones. The New York People’s Voice ran a regular column during World War II called “Home Boy Says.” It featured a black jive language column and a following interpretation in standard English. Some cartoons were attached to the column. One depicted a street scene with black Zoot-Suiters strutting on the avenue. Some carried walking canes. One little boy clad in the garb even wore a widebrimmed hat to complete the costume (“Blues” 19). The Chicago Defender ran an advertisement on Charlie Glenn’s “Rhumboogie” live entertainment show in Chicago featuring “Pot, Pans and Skillet: Stars of Duke Ellington’s ‘Jump for Joy’ musical” which had played in Los Angeles but whose Chicago date had been cancelled. The ad featured a black in a white Zoot-Suit with dark diamond shaped checks and a matching cap (Chicago Defender). Sammy Davis, Jr. posed after the war with his trio for a picture in which he wore a black-and-white checkered Zoot-Suit, white wide-brimmed hat, large black bow-tie and tap-dance shoes. He postured in the classic Zoot-Suiter’s pose with feet wide art, left hand in his coat pocket, and right hand in a fist with index finger pointed at an outward angle away from his body (Pomerance 111).

The Chicago Defender ran many cartoons on black Zoot-Suiters, usually poking fun at them and the garb. In one a black Zoot-Suiter has just entered his girlfriend’s apartment. He stood with a cigarette in his right hand by his side and his wide-brimmed hat in the other hand. His girlfriend told him, “Why don’t you quit trying to fool the public. Everyone knows your shoulders aren’t that big” (Jackson 10 Oct. 1942). Another one pictured a black Zooter whose seamstress girlfriend had designed his Zoot-Suit, which he had just put on. She declared, “I designed it myself—it’s my ‘practically all out for victory’ creation” (Jackson 26 Sept. 1942). A third sketch showed a black woman dropping her hot-comb and curling iron in a scrap heap for metal to recycle for the war effort. A distressed black male Zooter told her, “Stop, lady, only men in arms are asked to make the supreme sacrifice (Jackson 7 Nov. 1942). The message: Her social life would suffer certain death if she gave up her hair-dressing utensils. Dress suits, hair, shoe, tie, hat styles were important to blacks and their self-image, along with the rate of progress and status they had achieved.

A four-picture cartoon in the Pittsburgh Courier criticized black Zooters as loafers, disrespectful toward women, and failing to help the war effort and national unity because of their anti-social behavior. A non-suiter told a Zooter, “Mr. Browers, I do not wish to fight with you! It is my purpose here on earth to help you, my people….” But you must also help yourselves!” He added, “Let’s quit loafing at pool rooms and making disrespectful remarks about ladies! Let’s get jobs in our many war production plants and do OUR share towards a great victory!” One of the Zooters asked his buddies, “What is dis cat, a peacemaker?” Another Zooter remarked, What’s a matter, bud, got an itchy eye? Another Zooter said, “Well I don’t like his story, or his face either! Come here, Biff….” He added “Start somethin’ with that cutie and when he gets around to me, I’11 have business with him” (Holloway 11 Sept. 1943). These Zooters intended to beat this black patriot preaching work and morality In the next issue, the Zootess beat him up. A Zooter swung his fist at the intruder declaring, “We don’t like Yo’ business big boy, we goin’ to change yo’ rhythm.” A wild melee ensued but the intruder was able to hold off the Zooters. “The Zooters are non-plugged! Amazed! They hesitated,” went the cartoon script. A woman, Sue, screamed “Help! Police!” (Mills 25 Sept. 1943). Finally, the Zooters maneuvered the intruder about and one got behind him and stuck a knife into his back (Mills 25 Sept. 1943). Zooters were portrayed in this cartoon series as murderous, unpatriotic, unemployed hustlers whose anti-social behavior injured the black community and its inhabitants reputation as lazy and unpatriotic.

J.A. Rogers, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, charged that “The Zoot-Suit is not only a style; it is a revolt of callow youth against convention and authority. As such, however, it is at best but a shallow-brained revolt and typical of the mentality of the wearers. In short, Zoot revolt gets the Negro nowhere” (Rogers 26). A sketch in the Courier showed a Zooter in a black and white checkered coat and black trousers pleading with the judge in court with the palms of his hands opened and stretched out that “I don’t mind the time Your Honor, but six months without Murray’s (a hair pomade) is hard to take” (Pittsburgh Courier). Some blacks apparently were more concerned over their grooming and dress standards than their freedom. This irked black press critics who saw integration and civil rights as the primary concerns and needs of the black community.

A devastating sketch titled “Uncle Toms: Young and Old” portrayed a white slavemaster with “white supremacy” written over his head standing between two blacks held by chains: One black dressed in rags, wearing a head bandana, and leaning on a stick, hunched over looking cowed, and the other an arrogant Zoot-Suiter with a polka dot bandana, walking cane and cigarette in a holder, with one foot up in an arrogant strut and 1943 written over his head—indicating both the new and old Uncle Toms. The essay accompanying the sketch said that the old Uncle Tom could be excused because of slavery but not the new ones because they had opportunities for education and to develop their manhood (Holloway 27 Feb. 1943). The essay declared, “They are generally regarded as menaces to group progress because their actions hold us up to ridicule and disdain as they play the part of clowns and sycophants or confirm by their public demeanor the wide-held belief that colored people are inferior” (27).

Billy Rowe, the Pittsburgh Courier’s entertainment columnist, protested featuring blacks in Zoot-Suits in the films Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Stormy Weather (1943) with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Cab Calloway respectively. It was reported by Charlotte Charity that Rowe thought: “This type of clothing is the property of the jitterbugs, the juvenile delinquent, muggers, and even murders.” Rowe protested to Will Hayes and Charles Francis Cole of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., that the association of blacks with the Zoot-Suit on the screen had harmful effects, also that the Federal Government and law-enforcement agencies were conducting a vigorous campaign to halt it because it wasted material needed in the war effort and violated cloth-rationing regulations (Charity 3).

The portrayal of black Zooters and clowns and criminals and draft-dodgers who injured the reputation of blacks as a whole resulted in critics’ objection to Zooter culture and behavior. Zooters were perceived as rebels who rejected white middle-class norms of dress, social and cultural behavior and patriotism. Although the United States was still a racist authoritarian society and government that rejected even blacks who abided by white middle-class norms, black reformers wanted social and cultural conformity as an argument for racial democracy. Zooters apparently felt no obligation to conform to the norms of a society which excluded them. Black critics of black Zooters in effect were blaming the victims. Many Zooters understood this and rejected the attacks on them by blacks who argued for conformity. The black press, however, portrayed Zooters in both positive and negative sketches, often delighting in the suit and their wearers dress and behavior patterns. The black press, too, understood that many whites would use any excuse to ostracize blacks. Therefore, they tried to caution black Zoot-Suiters to behave themselves.