Skip to main content

The Zoot Suit and Style Warfare

  • Chapter

Part of the Youth Questions book series (YQ)


What about those fellows waiting still and silent there on the platform, so still and silent they clash with the crowd in their very immobility, standing noisy in their very silence; harsh as a cry of terror in their quietness? What about these three boys, coming now along the platform, tall and slender, walking with swinging shoulders in their well-pressed, too-hot-for-summer suits, their collars high and tight about their necks, their identical hats of black cheap felt set upon the crowns of their heads with a severe formality above their conked hair? It was as though I’d never seen their like before: walking slowly, their shoulders swaying, their legs swinging from their hips in trousers that ballooned upward from cuffs fitting snug about their ankles; their coats long and hip-tight with shoulders far too broad to be those of natural western men. These fellows whose bodies seemed — what had one of my teachers said of me? — ‘You’re like one of those African sculptures, distorted in the interest of design.’ Well, what design and whose?1

This article was originally published in the History Workshop Journal, 1984.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, New York, 1947, p. 380.

    Google Scholar 

  2. For the most extensive sociological study of the zoot-suit riots of 1943, see Ralph H. Turner and Samuel J. Surace, ‘Zoot Suiters and Mexicans: Symbols in Crowd Behaviour’, American Journal of Sociology, 62, 1956, pp. 14–20.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  3. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1967, pp. 5–6.

    Google Scholar 

  4. See K. L. Nelson (ed.), The Impact of War on American Life, New York, 1971.

    Google Scholar 

  5. O. E. Schoeffier and W. Gale, Esquire’s Encyclopaedia of Twentieth-Century Men’s Fashion, New York, 1973, p. 24.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Quoted in S. Menefee, Assignment USA, New York, 1943, p. 189.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Joan W. Moore, Homeboys: Gangs, Drugs and Prison in the Barrios of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, 1978.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Although the Detroit Race Riots of 1943 were not zoot-suit riots, nor evidently about ‘youth’ or ‘delinquency’, the social context in which they took place was obviously comparable. For a lengthy study of the Detroit riots, see R. Shogun and T. Craig, The Detroit Race Riot: a study in violence, Philadelphia and New York, 1964.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Chester Himes, ‘Zoot Riots are Race Riots’, The Crisis, July 1943;

    Google Scholar 

  10. Chester Himes, Black on Black: Baby Sister and Selected Writings, London, 1975.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Quoted in Larry Neal, ‘Ellison’s Zoot Suit’, in J. Hersey (ed.), Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays, New Jersey, 1974, p. 67.

    Google Scholar 

  12. From Larry Neal’s poem ‘Malcolm X: an Autobiography’, in L. Neal, Hoodoo Hollerin’ Bebop Ghosts, Washington DC, 1974, p. 9.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Copyright information

© 1984 Stuart Cosgrove

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Cosgrove, S. (1984). The Zoot Suit and Style Warfare. In: McRobbie, A. (eds) Zoot Suits and Second-Hand Dresses. Youth Questions. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Download citation