Style, race and riots

Sunday, August 14, 2011
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The Zoot Suit race riots of the 1940s took their name from a style. Young Mexican Americans, who called themselves pachucos, favored the baggy suit coats and trousers, long key chains and thick soled shoes that identified them as Zoot Suiters.

In the early war years there was a lot of racial paranoia in California, as well as fears of a Mexican crime wave being stoked by local newspapers. The L.A. County Sheriff's Office convened a grand jury about the crime wave and their expert E. Duran Ayres reported: 
"Mexican Americans are essentially Indians and therefore Orientals or Asians. Throughout history, he declared, the Orientals have shown less regard for human life than have the Europeans. Further, Mexican Americans had inherited their 'naturally violent' tendencies from the 'bloodthirsty Aztecs' of Mexico who were said to have practiced human sacrifice centuries ago. At one point in his report Ayres even compared the Anglo to a domesticated house cat and the Mexican to a 'wild cat,' suggesting that the Mexican would forever retain his wild and violent tendencies no matter how much education or training he might receive. [source]"
Adding to the tensions was a high profile trial of a group of pachucos accused of beating another man to death. The fuse was lit on June 3, 1943 when a group of sailors on shore leave reported they had been assaulted by by a group of  pachucos.

This touched off a 'dungaree liberty', an old naval tradition in which sailors go ashore and bust up an offending liberty port while officers look the other way. Groups of sailors and marines went to East L.A. and beat up any Zoot Suiters they found and stripped them of their clothes. This went on for several days and flared up briefly in other cities. It only ended when Los Angeles was made off-limits for shore leave. 

Shopping with violence
While the Zoot Suit Riots were clearly race riots, the recent riots in England have been something else entirely. Instead, they've been described as 'shopping with violence' by some English pundits.

David Starkey, a British historian, created a bit of an uproar on the BBC when he said that at the rioters were actually a mixture of Jamaican youth and Chavs (the British equivalent of white trash) who had adopted the style of American Black Gangsta culture. 

Naturally, the left-leaning panel on the BBC went berserk over this suggestion, accusing him of racism. This accusation made in spite if the fact that the BBC has been going out of its way to find pictures and stories of white looters -- which I would think rather eloquently makes Starkey's point that it is a youth subculture and not a race that is rioting.

But I digress, back to Zoot Suits and style...

As the Guardian reports in UK riots: Love affair with gangster-chic turns sour for top fashion brands (HT: Gates if Vienna) the riots are causing problems for some in the fashion industry:
Branding experts are warning that the riots are a wake-up call for the fashion brands that JD Sports stocks. They have cultivated a "gangster chic" image and found themselves targeted by looters across the country. Mark Borkowski, a PR and branding expert, said that image was now coming back to haunt them.

"The riots are an absolute disaster for a number of brands. From the day the Daily Mail and the Guardian used that picture of the hoodie equipped completely in Adidas it has become a massive crisis.

"It has been a wake-up call for many brands which have spent millions developing 'gangster chic' and 'dangerwear' images." A rioter dressed head-to-toe in Adidas was pictured on the front pages of most of the country's national newspapers on Tuesday. One of the youngest offenders appeared at court this week in a full Adidas tracksuit. The brand, which is one of the major sponsors of the 2012 Olympics, took the step of condemning its customers for taking part in the riots. "Adidas condemns any antisocial or illegal activity," the company said. "Our brand has a proud sporting heritage and such behaviour goes against everything we stand for."
From what I've read the British, who were already disgusted by the youth culture, are absolutely furious in the aftermath of the riots. They've already began evicting those arrested and their families from public housing, and a bill is working its way through Parliament to also remove them from the welfare rolls.

Needless to say, the major clothing brands that opted to promote themselves with rappers and gansta-chic are terrified that they're going to be caught up in the backlash. Levi's already pulled one of their  'Go Forth' ads that featured a scene of a young man facing off against a group of riot police. Other brands are no doubt scrambling to minimize the damage their branding may cause them.

Screen grab of a youth facing police from the withdrawn Levi's "Go Forth"  ad.

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