6. Reaction Against This Viral Fashion Trend Led to Riots
Throughout history, older generations have often given the side eye to youth fashion. Seldom, however, does it go from eye rolls to widespread violence. An exception was America’s reaction to the viral zoot suit fashion fad. Zoot suits took American youth culture by storm in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The outsized outfits stood out with their eye-catching look, of a long coat with wide lapels and broad shoulder pads. Baggy, tight-cuffed, and high-waist pants accompanied the coat, as did pointy French-style shoes. A watch chain dangled from the belt to the knees, then back to a side pocket. Finally, a color-coordinated fedora, sometimes with a long feather, completed the ensemble.
The distinctive zoot suits made their first appearances in African American communities in Harlem, Chicago, and Detroit. Eventually, they crossed over and became popular with the rest of America as part of the emerging jazz culture. In addition to African Americans, zoot suits became a huge hit with young Latinos, Filipinos, and Italian Americans. The outfit was sported by many young whites, but there was always an “ethnic” aura about zoot suits that made it problematic for much of the white mainstream. As seen below, the suits became even more controversial when America joined WWII.
5. Media Whipped Up Moral Outrage Against This Item of Youth Fashion
The elaborate zoot suits were luxury items that required significant tailoring and materials to produce. When America was thrust into WWII, the US War Production Board singled out zoot suits for criticism, as wasteful of materials and production time. The youngsters who sported the outfits saw them as expressions of their freedom and individuality, or even rebelliousness. Others, however, saw the viral fad as unpatriotic extravagances in wartime. When Life magazine ran a 1942 article about youths in zoots, it concluded that the outfits “were solid arguments for lowering the Army draft age to include 18-year-olds“.
Other media outfits followed suit, with sensational accounts that often exaggerated the suits’ actual cost. Before long, a backlash had built up against the outfits. Youngsters in zoot suits were frequently berated and verbally assailed in public, and sometimes physically attacked. Police would often stop people clad in zoots, and sometimes slash them into ruin. The most dramatic manifestation of the backlash, however, took place in Los Angeles in June of 1943, in what came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots.
The ground was prepared for the Zoot Suit Riots a year before they erupted. Los Angeles area newspapers whipped up racial tensions with sensationalist reports about a “crime wave” caused by Mexican-American youths, whose signature getup was zoot suits. It existed only in the newspapers’ imagination. Before long, a full-blown media campaign demanded that the authorities crack down on the “zoot suiters”. In response, law enforcement conducted frequent roundups, in which hundreds of Mexican-American youths were arrested. They were guilty of nothing more than going along with a viral fad and wearing oversized suits. During WWII, LA became a major military hub, as hundreds of thousands of servicemen were stationed there or passed through en route to other postings. Many white servicemen saw the wearing of zoot suits as flouting the war effort.
Mexican-Americans came to be seen as unpatriotic, despite the fact that they were overrepresented in the military, and served at a higher rate than whites. They also had one of the highest percentages of Medal of Honor recipients. Trouble began in June of 1943, when mobs of white servicemen roamed that city, and attacked allegedly “unpatriotic” Mexican-American’s wearing zoot suits. The rioters focused on Latino youths, but young African Americans and Filipinos were also targeted. Riots against Latinos soon spread throughout California to San Diego and Oakland, then across the country to Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. It was one of the few times – the straw hat riots being another example – when fashion choices led to widespread civil unrest in America.
Remember planking, the Ice Bucket Challenge, or similar viral fads that pop up, spread like wildfire, then fade into oblivion? Their 1950s equivalent was phone booth stuffing. People around the world – or at least the English-speaking world – competed to see how many folks they could cram into a phone booth. It is often assumed to have begun in colleges on the US West Coast, but in reality, it started in Durban, South Africa. There, in early 1959, twenty-five students tried to see if they could fit into a phone booth.
They pulled it off, and submitted their accomplishment to the Guinness Book of World Records. Word of their stunt spread, and before long, a fever of phone booth stuffing had spread to England, Canada, and the US. To participate, people – usually college students – squeezed themselves into a phone booth, one after another, until nobody else could fit in. While seemingly straightforward, there was a lot of complexity involved. In 1959, college kids began to skip class to devise plans to beat the record. As seen below, things spiraled from there.
College kids drew schematics to try and figure out the optimal configuration for cramming the highest number of human bodies into a phone booth, kind of like a 3-D Tetris. In Britain, where the fad became known as the “telephone booth squash”, some students went on diets to reduce their bulks. At MIT, some turned to geometry and advanced calculus to figure out the most efficient configuration to cram bodies into a tight space. As the competitive juices flowed and the competition heated up, accusations of cheating were hurled.
Some universities’ claims were challenged because of violations of supposed rules that should have been followed. Some argued that booth stuffing was valid only if somebody inside was able to make a phone call. In some universities, the count was based on any part of a competitor’s body placed inside the booth. They were challenged by other campuses, who contended that it only counted if all participants had their entire bodies inside. Eventually, amidst heated recriminations, the viral fad died out by the end of 1959.
Nowadays, wigs are so cheap that you can get a realistic looking one for under ten bucks. There was a time, however, when wigs were necessities for the upper crust – and quite expensive necessities at that. In the eighteenth century, for example, to make a decent wig usually took “six men working six days from sunup to sundown“. As a result, a good wig could cost as much as an average workman earned in a year. Such a small fortune propped atop rich people’s heads made wigs an attractive target for crooks. The result was a viral crime wave of wig robberies.
Aristocrats with elaborate wigs became particularly attractive targets for highwaymen. Since only the wealthy could afford big wigs, wealthy nobles were nicknamed “bigwigs”, after the lucrative target atop their heads. Not all wig thieves used force. One account tells of a wig bandit so bold and skilled, that he was able to replace his target’s expensive wig with a cheap rug when the mark was distracted. The nobleman, oblivious to the switch that had taken place, would then walk away, unaware that he had just lost a fortune. Unfortunately for the wig snatchers, their gravy train came to a halt when wigs went out of fashion.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading