1943’s “Zoot Suit Riots” take their name from the high-waisted wool trousers and baggy, long-tailed suit coats then worn by many Los Angeles youths, but the violence was more about race relations than fashion. At the time, the jazz-inspired outfits were particularly popular among the city’s Mexican American population. Latino youths known as “Pachucos” caused a sensation by donning zoot suits, pork pie hats and dangling watch chains, and it wasn’t long before their eye-catching garb earned them an overblown reputation as street thugs and juvenile delinquents. Tensions grew especially high between zoot-suiters and the large contingent of white sailors and Marines stationed in Los Angeles. Mexican Americans were serving in the military in high numbers, but many servicemen viewed the zoot-suit wearers as World War II draft dodgers. Since wool and other textiles were subject to wartime rationing, they also considered the oversized suits an unpatriotic waste of resources.
The racially charged atmosphere finally led to full-scale riots in early June 1943. Following a series of bloody street brawls between zoot-suiters and white soldiers, a mob of U.S. servicemen took to the streets in taxicabs and began attacking Latinos and stripping them of their suits. Thousands more servicemen and civilians joined the fray over the next several days, often marching into cafes and movie theaters and beating anyone wearing Pachuco clothing or hairstyles. Blacks and Filipinos—even those not clad in zoot suits—were also targeted. Local papers framed the racial attacks as a vigilante response to an immigrant crime wave, and police generally restricted their arrests to the Latinos who fought back. The mayhem didn’t die down until June 8, when U.S. military personnel were finally barred from leaving their barracks. The Los Angeles City Council issued a ban on zoot suits the following day. Amazingly, no one was killed during the weeklong riot, but it wasn’t the last outburst of zoot suit-related racial violence. Similar incidents took place that same year in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit.