In June 1943, a single fashion item dominated communities of color in Los Angeles: the zoot suit. Known for their bright colors, pegged sleeves, and pleated trousers, along with such accessories as shoulder pads and watch chains, zoot suits were a style staple for young men who patronized the city’s dance halls. Young women wore the suits too, pairing the loose jackets with above-the-knee skirts.
Like many fashions linked to Los Angeles, the zoot suit was an import. It gained popularity in the 1930s Harlem club scene before spreading to LA, where it would make national news and ignite so much backlash that local lawmakers would try to ban it.
Los Angeles did not invent many of the garments its residents have embraced. But the region has developed its own style, one shaped by Hollywood, a surf-and-skate subculture, and people of color, especially Latinx and black people.
It took time for Los Angeles to develop a sartorial identity. In the early 1900s, Angelenos took their style cues from the East Coast, which took them from Europe. But year-round warm weather made some of that fashion unpleasant. Perhaps, above all, the sunshine has influenced LA style as much as haute couture from heritage fashion houses.
“There was a way of dressing if you were back East—heavy woolens and fur coats—that people simply didn’t wear out here,” says Kevin Jones, curator of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles. “Instead of heavy coats, they’d wear lightweight cotton or linen ones in brighter colors, something light and bright and fun.”
The zoot suit, then, with its removable layers, became the perfect ensemble for a Los Angeles summer.
By the 1940s, Los Angeles was already known for its racial diversity. The mix of cultures created racial tensions that would culminate in the Zoot Suit Riots. Since Chicanos, blacks, Filipinos, Italians, and Jews all flocked to these ensembles, whites framed the suits as somehow delinquent.
Nativism and nationalism fueled the condemnation. Fabrics were carefully rationed during wartime, and because baggy zoot suits required more material than other garments, those who wore them were characterized as unpatriotic.
Tensions came to a head on June 3, 1943, when white servicemen claimed that a group of pachucos, Mexican Americans in zoot suits, had attacked them. White soldiers, sailors, and marines used the purported attack as a green light to thrash people of color, in zoot suits or not.
The vicious beatings of zoot suit wearers ballooned into full-fledged riots that lasted through June 8, 1943. Dozens were stripped of their clothes and more than 150 people were injured.
“All that tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the street as gas fumes. Every time I stepped outside I saw a challenge I had to accept or ignore,” says the protagonist of Chester Himes’s novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, which centers around race relations in 1940s Los Angeles.
After the riots, some city leaders tried to ban residents from wearing zoot suits in public, suggesting that the clothing, not racist vigilantes, had ushered in this episode of widespread brutality. The resolution did not pass.
In 1957, Frederick Kohner’s novel Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas, revolutionized teen and beach culture and the fashions related to them. Set in Malibu, the book chronicles a group of surfer friends and was loosely based on the experiences of the author’s daughter, Kathy. Kohner went on to write a series of books about Gidget that became fodder for Hollywood, with movies and a TV series centered on the title character.
By the 1960s, pop culture’s fixation on beach culture in Los Angeles and elsewhere peaked, with Elvis Presley starring in a string of beach films and the Beach Boys topping the charts with “Surfin’ U.S.A.” The rise of surf culture coincided with the sexual revolution, and the bikini—once considered too risqué for the masses—became a beach staple.
French designer Louis Réard is credited with inventing the bikini in 1946 (though some historians trace it to antiquity). But Hollywood had a hand in popularizing bathing suits, and actresses, including Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth, dared to be photographed in bikinis throughout the ’40s and ’50s.
“Bathing suits had been worn in Europe and on the East Coast, in Brighton Beach and Coney Island, but they weren’t part of the actual lifestyle,” says Jones. “That’s the thing that set Southern California apart. It was a lifestyle, indoor and out.”
As movie surfers lost their appeal, a group of real-life surfers, known as the Z-Boys, increasingly spent their time skating in the empty pools of Los Angeles. A drought had forced residents to severely restrict their water use, and many drained their pools.
The Z-Boys introduced vertical skating and a skateboard culture that gave rise to new fashions and tweaked existing ones. Originally known as “sidewalk surfers,” skateboarders started out dressing basically the same as surfers: T-shirts, board shorts, deck shoes, and tube socks were standard attire.
But Tony Alva, who would be named 1977’s “Skateboarder of the Year” by Skateboarder Magazine readers, began to dress in a way that was more functional and reflected the grittiness of Santa Monica’s Dogtown neighborhood, the headquarters of the Z-Boys.
Alva teamed up with his sponsor Vans, launched in Anaheim in 1966, to develop the first skateboard shoe. The Vans Era model, which Alva co-designed, had grip, padding, a heel cup, and a waffle sole. Beyond the innovative new shoes, Alva stood out for wearing a fedora and would start his own fashion line in 1978 featuring puffer nylon shorts and tops in bright oranges and greens. Punk and new wave music influenced Alva Clothing, which made it into in Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, but the skater’s hat was a nod to his Hispanic heritage.
“We were influenced by the street,” Alva told Illuminated Paper last year. That’s how we started to wear fedoras. And that’s also how we wore the kind of chinos, the khaki pants the Mexican kids were wearing. Street style in L.A. has always been Chicano-influenced, Mexican-influenced.”
The zoot suit gained a following during the same time that one of Hollywood’s most enduring movie genres was gaining its fanbase: film noir. These thrillers, which explored themes like crime, lust, and betrayal, often took place in Los Angeles. They include 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which Lana Turner appears in a white turban and a matching midriff top and shorts.
Turner’s turban wasn’t an anomaly—it was a reflection of the nation’s obsession with exoticism, Orientalism, and regions known for their arid climates, such as North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. That obsession intensified after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.
Theaters all over Los Angeles built in the 1920s and ’30s, including Grauman’s Egyptian, the TLC Chinese, the Pantages, and the Rialto in South Pasadena, reflect this flair for the exotic in their architecture. Women tapped into it by donning head wraps, an accessory worn not just by Turner but by other Golden Age legends such as Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich.
“From Clara Bow on, people saw these movie stars and emulated their hair, makeup and clothing from every time period—the ’20s, ’30s, the ’50s—and ate it all up,” says Anna Wyckoff, communications director of the Costume Designers Guild. “Hollywood style has just permeated fashion, and designers still use the golden age of Hollywood as a springboard.”
Seventy-three years after the release of The Postman Always Rings Twice, short sets continue to be summer must-haves.