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  • Writer's pictureFashion and Retail Association

Mexican-Americans in Fashion: The Chicano Movement

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

by: Julianna Del Rey

Fashion is inherently political. Whether the wearer intends to convey a politically-charged message or not, seemingly hot-button trends that arose decades ago should still be acknowledged for their political origins. Especially when the history holds the plight of discrimination and employing fashion as a vehicle of revolution. Chicano fashion and culture in particular permeates through contemporary high-fashion as well as different subsections of fashion, like skate culture. Although cultural exchange is a natural consequence of globalization, it is important to examine the roots of an undermined culture, and celebrate a style’s historical origins.

The Chicano Movement, which occurred adjacent to the Civil Rights Movement, saw Mexican-Americans advocating for equality, specifically in the areas of representation, education, farming, and anti-discrimination and segregation. A tossed-aside niche of this era is how fashion played a major role in the movement’s culture of resistance and anti-assimilation. Members of the movement refused to conform to the traditional “look” of Americans--instead enduring ostracization and discrimination for their style choices.

From 1929 to 1936, right before the onset of the Chicano Movement, about two million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (even U.S. born citizens) were deported from the United States. This mass deportation, known as the Mexican Repatriation, was a result of the Great Depression’s stalling demand for labor. Darker-skinned Mexicans, Mexicans living closer to the border, and majority-Mexican neighborhoods were especially targeted. Today, the Mexican Repatriation is regarded as a war crime and an ethnic cleansing event by some scholars (as citizenship was largely ignored--skin color was the main factor in deportations), and would not be the first or last time the government would target Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Soon after the Mexican Repatriation, in the 1940s, Mexican-Americans began adopting a more distinct sense of dress, spawning the birth of the iconic zoot suit. A classic zoot suit has two components: the oversized, broad-shouldered suit jacket, and the high-waisted balloon-leg trousers.

The suit was made from wool, which, interestingly, deepened tensions between white people and long-oppressed Mexican-Americans because wool was a dwindling commodity during World War II, so zoot suits were seen as a waste of resources. Those who donned the zoot suit, typically Mexican-American teens, were regarded as “gangsters,” “thugs,” and “delinquents.” In Los Angeles, off-duty police officers, Marines, and other servicemen repeatedly clashed with so-called “zoot suiters.” U.S. servicemen would enter Latino neighborhoods armed with clubs and other weapons, and attack anyone wearing a zoot suit. This series of riots and violent altercations between zoot suiters and servicemen became known as the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943.

In the 60s and 70s, the zoot suit evolved into the more casual and contemporary Chicano look: baggy jeans, oversized flannels, bandanas, grey-and-black-striped polos, etc. Bandana tops have recently made a “comeback” in the fashion world, raising a few divisive questions: Why does it take a white, “conventionally-attractive” model to convince society that Chicano fashion influence is worth exploring? These same garments are now paraded on supermodels and suddenly they’re considered high-fashion and trendy, not the style of “dirty” and “dangerous” people like they were once considered. Why does society embrace the inauthentic emulation rather than the culturally and politically-significant fashion statements adorned by Chicanos in an effort to bring attention to their struggle for equality?

In a Hypebeast article, BornxRaised owner Spanto remarked on the issue: “As a whole, it should be treated with respect. This is a culture with values and traditions, not a style or fashion trend. We actually lived this shit. This is a part of our lives.” Many Chicano designers share the same sentiment: While the convergence and fusion of styles is natural and generally a wonderful occurrence, credit and celebration of the styles’ origins are deserved. The solution should go beyond well-known brands just diversifying their model pool, but by also hiring Chicano and Latino designers to incorporate the flourishing styles. Fashion is a non-adversarial way to convey a political stance or a way to stand in solidarity with oppressed individuals. Combating ignorance through education and non-superficial diversity is a powerful tool that can even be applied in something as seemingly politically-trivial as the fashion industry.

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