A zoot suit consisted of a long coat and baggy pants that narrowed at the ankles, often accessorized with a broad brimmed hat and a long watch chain. The look flourished in the 1940s and ’50s, especially among young Mexican-Americans who referred to themselves as “pachucos,” although zoot suits were also worn by many African-Americans and various immigrant groups -and young white guys, too. But the suits seemed threatening to the establishment. Wearers were considered delinquents, or even “un-American.” In 1943, the fashion led to a riot.
Essentially what happened was a group of Navy guys were cruising in East Los Angeles when they spotted a group of Mexican guys in their fancy zoot suits, and thought it would be fun to beat them up and strip them of their suits. Not long after the incident, another group of Navy guys went back to the area, and this time the Zoot suiters fought back. Suddenly, the LA Times was running sensationalist headlines like “Zoot Suiters Beat Up and Stab Servicemen!” during the height of WWII when laying a finger on a serviceman for whatever reason, was like committing treason.
When US servicemen based in LA read those headlines, hundreds and then thousands of U.S. Navy officers headed to East LA and began terrorizing anyone they came across wearing a zoot suit, also worn at the time by several minority groups including African American and Filipino/Filipino American youths. The first attacks involved victims that were 12 to 13 year-old boys. More servicemen followed, entering bars and cinemas in Latino neighbourhoods and assaulting them.
The police did not interfere in the fights because, you know, servicemen. They did arrest quite a few people. Read about zoot suits and the Zoot Suit Riots, and see plenty of pictures, at Messy Nessy Chic.