The Zoot Suit Riots

Updated on June 5, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The summer of 1943 saw racial tensions explode in several American cities. White service personnel and civilians attacked racial minorities. Ostensibly, the violence was against men wearing clothes that demanded a lot of fabric at a time of wool rationing. This obscured the underlying issue which was racism directed mostly at Mexican-Americans and Mexicans.

A soldier seems unimpressed by the zoot suits worn by a couple of young men in 1942.
A soldier seems unimpressed by the zoot suits worn by a couple of young men in 1942. | Source

The Zoot Suit

The fashion started with so-called “drape” suits favoured by African-American men in Harlem in the mid-1930s.

The zoot suit had wide shoulders, tapered trousers, and an extra long jacket. It was voluminous and ostentatious. A wide-brimmed hat and very long watch chain often completed the ensemble.

Alice Gregory, writing in The Smithsonian Magazine notes that “There was no one designer associated with the look, no department store where you could buy one. These were ad hoc outfits, regular suits bought two sizes too large and then creatively tailored to dandyish effect.”

By 1943, the United States was fully involved in the Second World War and rationing of cloth in support of the war effort was introduced. Some tailors found illicit ways of acquiring fabrics, so, wearing the capacious zoot suit was viewed as disloyal.

For many of the zoot suiters, wearing the outfit was an act of defiance against racial injustice and segregation.

Zoot suits on parade.
Zoot suits on parade. | Source

The zoot suit name seems to be what’s called a nonsense reduplication that comes out of African-American slang. Other examples might be the heebie-jeebies or jeepers-creepers.

Imported Labour

Another trigger for the riots of 1943 was the importation of workers. Men drafted into uniform left agriculture and other industries understaffed. The U.S. government turned to Mexico to fill the manpower gaps.

The large influx of temporary workers from Mexico into Texas, California, and Arizona was not welcomed by many Americans.

In a move that has a familiar ring to it today, anti-Latino sentiments were stirred up by politicians and newspapers accusing Mexicans of being involved in crime. This created a smoldering resentment among white people towards Mexicans; and a spark was soon found that caused it to burst into flames.

Under what was called the Bracero Program Mexican workers arrived in Los Angeles in 1942.
Under what was called the Bracero Program Mexican workers arrived in Los Angeles in 1942. | Source

The Sleepy Lagoon Murder

In August 1942, José Díaz, 22, was found close to death near a reservoir locally known as the “sleepy lagoon” in southeast Los Angeles County. The young man died and the autopsy found he was drunk and his injuries might have been caused by having been struck by a car.

However, in the racially charged atmosphere, it was decided this was a deliberate killing and it must be the work of juvenile Latinos.

Hundreds of young people, many of them dressed in zoot suits, were arrested. Eventually, 22 young men were charged with the murder of Díaz. The prosecution leaned heavily on the unconventional dress of the defendants as evidence that they were socially deviant. Despite the absence of solid evidence of guilt, 17 of the young men were convicted and drew prison sentences ranging from life to a year.

As The Los Angeles Times later reported, “At trial, a sheriff’s captain testified that ‘the Mexican element’ had an innate ‘desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon. In other words, his desire is to kill, or, at least, let blood.’ ”

The guilty verdicts were unanimously reversed on appeal in October 1944 but, by then, the Sleepy Lagoon Murder had painted the zoot suiters as dangerous criminals.

The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Franchise Offered Zoot Cat in 1944

The Riots Begin

Minor altercations started to occur between white servicemen and zoot suiters; then they started to escalate.

By the first week of June 1943, the disturbances had become riots. Young men in zoot suits were tracked down and forced to disrobe or get beaten up.

Servicemen, mostly sailors armed with clubs, were determined to rid the streets of Los Angeles of what they claimed were violent Latino gangs. The police largely stood by and let the vigilantes do their work; some off-duty cops joined in the mayhem.

Some of the zoot suiters fought back and the situation spiralled out of control. On June 7, 1943, thousands of civilians joined the servicemen and rampaged through downtown L.A. When they couldn’t find zoot suiters they turned their venom on any visible minority. Police were forced to step in and make arrests.

The newspaper headline reads "Zoot suiters learn lesson in fights with servicemen."
The newspaper headline reads "Zoot suiters learn lesson in fights with servicemen." | Source

Of course, most of those handcuffed and jailed were the victims. The L.A. City Council then passed an ordinance banning the wearing of zoot suits on the streets.

With the military men confined to barracks and the Latinos behind bars, calm descended on the city. But, the Los Angeles riots inspired, if that’s the right word, others in Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and other communities.

The White House took notice and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt went to the root of the matter in her weekly newspaper column: “The question goes deeper than just the suits. It is a racial protest,” she wrote.

A California state inquiry bore out Eleanor Roosevelt’s reading of the events; racism was deemed to be at the heart of the conflicts that was made worse by biased media coverage. The police were also criticized for their inadequate response.

But the mayor, Fletcher Bowron, said prejudice was not a factor. It was all the fault of juvenile delinquents, he said.

The zoot suit makes a modern reappearance.
The zoot suit makes a modern reappearance. | Source

Bonus Factoids

Curators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art went looking for an original zoot suit to exhibit. It was a search that lasted more than a decade and ended in 2011 with an $80,000-purchase at an auction.

Zoot suits became associated with jazz and were worn occasionally by Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Dizzie Gillespie, and others.

Black activist Malcolm X sometimes wore a zoot suit that he described as “a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats, and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.”


  • “A Brief History of the Zoot Suit.” Alice Gregory, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2016
  • “Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial.” Eduardo Obregón Pagán, Oxford Bibliographies, April 28, 2017.
  • “Zoot Suit Riots: After 75 years, L.A. Looks Back on a Violent Summer.” Marisa Gerberm, Los Angeles Times, June 4, 2018.
  • “The Zoot Suit Riots: When Fashion And Racism Erupted Into Violence.” Mark Oliver,, November 14, 2017
  • “Jun 3, 1943 CE: Zoot Suit Riots.” National Geographic, undated.
  • “Zoot Suit Riots.” George Coroian, Encyclopedia Britannica, May 27, 2019.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      7 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Hi, Rupert, A very interesting read. But I am afraid something bad was made out of the suit very early. I think racial discrimination for menial job seekers seems to be the thing. But I am equally glad that something good came out of the suit in the later time.

      I do not see anything wrong with the suit. It was very suitable for men who can afford the extra materials. Looking at the picture of the Zoot Suits, I like them and the men who wore them. It is a much better outfit for the modern self-confidence man. Thanks for sharing.

    • TessSchlesinger profile image

      Tessa Schlesinger 

      7 months ago

      My late father had one of those hanging in his wardrobe. I once asked him what it was... Can't remember his reply.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)