Smells Like Teen Spirit: 4/8

Fight The Power: subcultures and the challenging hegemonic values

Clothes and style can challenge the system (hegemonic values).

Last week: “resignification” (Clarke, Hall, Jefferson) NEW MEANINGS FROM OLD

  • ‘to inflect given meaning’
  • ‘…to modify’
  • ‘…to intensify or exaggerate’
  • ‘ combine forms’

1940’s Zoot suit

Male suit and it’s traditional connotations: Jean-Paul Gaultier, played on the suit: embedding in traditional values

1) Paraphrase (put into your own words) Alford’s suggestions about the function of the Zoot suit for the wearer at the time

“Zoot, as a verb, means something done or worn in an exaggerated style, but as a noun it is the ultimate in clothes. Mainly young African-Americans and Hispanic Americans wore this…the craze is said to have begun in lower-class neighbourhoods in major cities such as the borough of Harlem in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta and the suit was usually worn by boys aged sixteen to twenty
…Living in a society where it is difficult to have a voice, African-American men found self-expression through their own personal style. For African American men, clothing signifies where they are and more importantly where they want to be” (Alford, 2009, p353)
“most of these young men were socially and culturally disadvantaged, trying to let people know who they were through their clothing. For these young men, the suit became an emblem of ethnicity and a way of negotiating an identity
…as more and more youths from the lower class levels started to wear the suit, so did many delinquent youths…had become members of gangs or involved in racketeering…by 1942, the Zoot suit wearers began to become stereotyped with criminal activity. This is why many youngsters who wanted to be „hip‟ had trouble with their parents and the older generation accepting the suit”. (Alford, 2009, p356)

  • Foot: something done or worn in exaggerated style
  • allowed African-American’s to be seen and have a voice
  • Alford (2009), suggest that the Zoot suit was worn by African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, originating from lower-class neighbourhoods in big cities.
  • African-American men used clothing to show self-expression and to signify who they are. (Alford, 2009)
  • For the disadvantaged young men, the suit was a way of expressing their identity and was a racial statement. (Alford, 2009)
  • The Zoot suit became popular throughout many lower-class men and were worn by member of gangs. Gangs began wearing the Zoot suit to commit crime so it became stereotyped with criminal activity. (Alford, 2009)

The look

“Everything was exaggerated, from the V knot tie, the Zoot chain, the tight collar, the wide, flat hat and the Dutch type shoes. The suit came in various colours, such as lime green or canary yellow…the Zoot suit was but one part of a total look that included not only the suit and accessories but also the way you wore your hair, the walk and the zoot suit argot…the zoot-suitor also had a particular walk or strut. The way you walked and presented yourself enhanced the suit. Then there was the argot, a secret type of vocabulary or slang that was known in the African-American swing community as Jive, a Harlemese speech. Some define it as a language that was embraced by African Americans partly to put the white man off, partly to put him down” (Alford, 2009, p354)

  • Exaggeration of all key elements within the traditional suit (Alford, 2009)
  • came in various colours: suit aren’t usually bright colours, they’re dull because they don’t attract attention – the Zoot suit does
  • the look included not just the Zoot suit but also how you did your hair, the accessories you put with it and a particular strut/way of walking. (Alford, 2009)
  • they used a different vocabulary ; type of slang went with this scene to exclude others who didn’t understand.
    • clothes signified a scene but its other attributes that create a scene
    • “a language embraced…to put the white man off” (Alford, 2009, p354)

Resignification: entirely the same suit but completely exaggerated all items within the clothing; unnecessary amount of fabric – mockery of the original suit

Soot suit critiqued the Second World War:

“an underlying agenda of the Zoot suit was to critique the Second World War, and to question America‟s moral stance in its defence of other races from inhuman crimes, when it was guilty itself of such occurrences in its own country, such as lynching and the Jim Crow system against non-whites. To wear such an expanse of fabric as the knee-length, wide-shouldered jacket and voluminous trousers, was to flout the rationing regulations. In the eyes of the „right-thinking‟ Americans, this caused one to question the patriotism of its wearer. From March 1942 the Zoot suit was effectively

an illegal ensemble, following a dictate from the War Production board that „rationed cloth to a 26 percent cut-back in the use of fabrics…as Cosgrove put it “the regulations effectively forbade the manufacture of Zoot suits” (Cosgrove, 1989 cited in Tulloch, 2006, p304)
“the Zoot suit was vehemently un-American, solely entrenched in African American or Mexican culture, therefore non-white…it was about the attainment of power and control of the self by the wearer. Here was Black Power some twenty-odd years before the official counter-discourse of the movement of the same name, tailored into a specific style of suit, an attitude in opposition to White Power, constructed in the authoritarian and patriotic garments of the military uniform of the streamlined, rationed suit. One could say that here, in the fabric and cut of the three suits – the Zoot suit, the „streamlined suit by Uncle Sam‟ and the military suit of the soldier – the social tension that has marred the texture of American society was played out in the public arena of the actual streets of America” (Tulloch, 2006, p304)

  • to wear a lot of fabric was to disregard the rationing regulations
  • made ‘right’ Americans “question the patriotism of the wearer” (Cosgrove, 1989 cited in Tulloch, 2006, p304)
  • 1942: Zoot suit illegal: ‘un-American’ – began in African-American or Mexico culture
  • In the war: soldiers wore suits: rationed principles
    • racial tension: Zoot suit responds to White Power; clothing can make identity statements to ethnicity

– meanings can occur in all aspects of art and design in terms of the time it was made: I have a 21st Century way of looking at things and meaning/values I hold are embedded in my work

Case study: The Teds: (Jefferson, 1976, Cultural Response of the Teds)
– Subcultural British style in the 50’s

What is the style? How does it relate to the Zoot suit?

  • originated from Edwardians suit
  • the Edwardian suit was modified by The Teds

All similar to why the lower-class youth in 1940s America made the Zoot suit

  • style hair; different cut to the jacket
  • taken up by working class youths
  • bright colours
  • blue suede shoes
  • ‘buy status’
  • aristocracy wear adopted by working class men in the 1950s in the East End
    • statement about class systems, didn’t want to conform
    • criminal behaviour with the Ted suit gave different name to aristocracy look
  • late 50’s saw the development of Ted look: Americana influence

Subcultures have revivals: Ted look came back in the 70’s

“To contract a dominant ideology’ (Tulloch, 2006:304)
The system/establishment: oppose it
– Teds ‘dominant ideology’ would have been British class systems
– Zoot suit: White Power

Always question: challenge the system; don’t conform

Consider and link the recurring trends with the cultures we have studied from the first 4 weeks.

Throughout the last few weeks, we have discussed 3 different Subculture styles: Goths; Hip Hop; Zoot suit and the Teds. Each Subculture each have anti-establishment values. Even though they are completely different they all share certain elements that define them as a Subculture style. The use of jewellery within the styles is really important, for example the use of the VW car logo worn as a necklace by the Hip Hop Subculture to define criminal activity and then the crucifix worn by the Goth’s to show death and a morbid look. All the styles using different materials and blend them together to create their style; their style’s are ‘re-signification’ (Clark; Hall; Jefferson) of clothing.


Author: ellenreiddesign

First year Graphic Communication student at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

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