Babe do you know what sometimes we absolutely love vintage, but the cultural happenings that go on around it and affect makes us sad for the gaps it forgot. This five part series is dedicated to celebrating the shit out of vintage, but also saying hello? What is missing? Why is it missing and what the fuckkkk can we do about it to resolve it?

This week we're tapping into the zoot suit. Never heard of it? Well strap on in babe you're about to find out why & other elements of black culture you've probably never heard of either 

Black people were erased in Zoot Suits

So the zoot suit is a suit that was popularised during the 1930s when dance halls were a popular form of socialisation and a way to ease stress during the Great Depression. These suits were designed for dancing and were tapered at the ankle to prevent tripping, creating a ballooning affect. They were heavily padded on top with wide lapels with the intention of creating a practical garment that would accentuate movement.


zoot suit in an exhibition


The zoot suit were worn for social events and dances and were particularly popular among lower and working class groups of Mexican, African American and Jewish youth and as a result started to garner a racist reputation. As the youth flexed flash zoot suits,  fedora hats and dangling watch chains, affluent white people began viewing this aesthetic as one associated with gang culture and criminal activity. 


two males and two females posing before a dance in zoot suits or similar attire


On top off this, zoot suits gained popularity around the time of WW2 when many fabrics were being rationed. However, back street stores in large cities such as LA and NY continued to make zoot suits despite the extreme amount of fabrics being used and this generated anger amongst other communities. Local media fanned the flames, aligning zoot suits with the rise in crime in the LA area.

Like the stonewall riots, the zoot suit riots began following the beating of a white sailor after tensions rose between service men and zoot suit wearers. Despite a large number of Mexican and African American men serving in America during the war, servicemen viewed zoot suits as those worn by WW2 service dodgers, despite most of them being too young to serve. 


the zoot suit riots: crowd of sailors with batons and baseball bats


These riots would reign for almost a week and were attended by thousands of servicemen who took to the streets attacking anybody with racial clothing, stripping men of their zoot suits and leaving them half naked and blooded on the street. They would enter movie threatres and cafe's, beating anybody wearing a zoot suit or clothing or hairstyles similar to the culture.

Taxi drivers were giving servicemen rides to local lynchings where thousands attended. The Mexican American community implored local governments to help and intervene but they were met with little response. Rather than take action on those imposing violence, LA city council decided that after a week of rioting and thousands of beatings (it's shocking nobody was killed) that imposing a ban on the creation and sale of zoot suits would be the best decision moving forward. In fact, they are by law still illegal today. Talk about gaslight central babe


the aftermath of the zoot suit riots: person of colour with a ripped up zoot suit, two black men either side of him


A combination of the illegality and halting of production, policemen slashing zoot suits to ruins and the refashioning of zoot suits into other garments, original specimens of zoot suits are mythically hard to come by. In fact, It took curators from Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) over a decade to find one, and when they did in 2011, it cost them an auction record for an item of 20th century menswear of $80,000.


zoot suit in exhibition next to two smaller mannequins

So where's the vintage link?

Racism exists as a form of control. Because, the more we see of a culture and the more reference points they have, the more of a voice they have, making them harder to control. See how quickly the zoot suit turned into a symbol of crime and racism despite there being no real reason for that to occur? Especially in vintage eras, as soon as ethnic minorities start showing community and strength and aesthetic, it is immediately erased because people feel threatened.

Unfortunately this theme of erasure continues long after the zoot suit riots; they are not an isolated incident. This means for fashion, we are left with watered down aesthetics, erasure and cultural appropriation. How many times have black artists created something for it to be disregarded and not accepted into mainstream pop culture or appropriated by a white person and no flowers to be given. Some label this under appreciation, but it will always be appropriation when you take the aesthetic but don't honour the history and its creator. There has to be mutual respect for appreciation to even enter the chat.

fashion show featuring cultural appropriation in the form of hair braids of white models


It leaves vintage in a catch twenty two situation. We will always support vintage for its sustainability merits, how bloody good quality it is and for its ability for many of us to create our own unique aesthetics. But due to the eras it's been created in, there are some gaps that need to be addressed. 

Until next time,

AE x