18. Wartime Backlash Against Teens
Zoot suits were luxury items, as significant materials and tailoring effort went into making them. When America entered WWII, the US War Production Board criticized the outfits for wasting materials and production time better used in the war effort. Zoots were seen by their young wearers as declarations of their individuality, freedom, or even rebelliousness. They were seen by others as self-indulgent and unpatriotic extravagances during wartime. Life magazine did a feature on youth sporting zoots in 1942, and concluded that: “they were solid arguments for lowering the Army draft age to include 18-year-olds“. The rest of the media joined in with sensational accounts, often wildly exaggerating the costs and price tags of zoots, and linking their wearers to crime or aspirations to becoming criminal.
A backlash thus began building against zoot suits. Those clad in the outfits were often berated and verbally assailed in public, and sometimes physically attacked. Policemen often stopped and hassled zoot wearers, and ruined their suits by slashing them. However, the most dramatic manifestation of the backlash occurred in Los Angeles in June, 1943. During what came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots, many zoot wearing teenagers, most of them Mexican-Americans, were beat, and some were killed, over their fashion choices.