In partnership with the Vincent Price Art Museum: The mission of the Vincent Price Art Museum is to serve as a unique educational resource through the exhibition, interpretation, collection, and preservation of works in all media.
"Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943 – 2016" is a multimedia exhibition that traverses eight decades of style, art, and music, and presents vignettes that consider youth culture as a social class, distinct issues associated with young people, principles of social organization, and the emergence of subcultural groups. Citing the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots as a seminal moment in the history of Los Angeles, the exhibition emphasizes a recirculation of shared experiences across time, reflecting recurrent and ongoing struggles and triumphs.
Through a series of articles, Artbound is digging deeper into the figures and themes explored in "Tastemakers & Earthshakers." The show was on view from October 15, 2016 to February 25, 2017 at the Vincent Price Art Museum.
It seems to be one of the greatest, unanswered questions of all time: what is it with Chicanas/os and their undying love for Morrissey? More so, what is it about Los Angeles Chicanas/os and their seemingly impenetrable connection to the British crooner?
It’s an enigma that has long been thoroughly explored by cultural historians and music lovers, alike. But the connection between Los Angeles and United Kingdom youth culture is something that predates the Morrissey phenomenon by at least 40 years. The exhibition “Tastemakers & Earthshakers,” on view at the Vincent Price Art Museum, launches its exploration of Los Angeles’ Latino youth culture with a quick glimpse into music and fashion that not only crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but artfully borrowed and influenced one another.
This introspection begins in the 1940s, with a look into the highly stylized world of the pachucos, who borrowed their own style from the African-American jazz musicians and dance halls of New York. Their zoot suits, with elongated jackets and flowing pants, were deemed as unpatriotic — an act of defiance by the young Latinos and Filipinos who popularized them. Whether or not they were looking to become symbols of resistance, young pachucos found themselves at the height of an era that would elevate them as such. With the World War II effort underway, American propaganda called for patriotic Americans to do everything in their power to invest into the war effort, which included divesting in material luxuries such as fabric and fashion accessories. Despite the thousands of Mexican-American soldiers that were serving overseas and the Mexican-American women who maintained the war effort through their factory labor at home, Mexican-American pachucos were pegged as criminal deviants. A large part of this was fueled by local news media, who created wide-spread sensation over events like the Sleepy Lagoon trial which subsequently lead to what’s today known as the Zoot Suit Riots, where white servicemen targeted and stripped young Mexican-Americans of their zoot suits in the streets of Los Angeles. Despite being overtly targeted by law enforcement and being banned by businesses looking to thwart any unsavory customers, Mexican-American youth continued to embrace the style which quickly grew to influence women’s fashion as well.
The World War II efforts, its propaganda and the media’s influence on an already leery world would see similar effects on the youth in 1950’s Britain. Said to have emerged by tailors along the well-known Savile Row in London, the origin of the “Teddy boy” has been seen as an attempt to break free from the drabness of post-war fashion, their Edwardian era-inspired suits targeted at London’s upper-class young men. However, the suits, with long jackets, embellished lapels and tailored pants, were also adopted and popularized by working-class youth who launched the ‘working-class Edwardian style’ into a trend across the United Kingdom. The term “Teddy boys,” which took its name from the moniker for Edward, emerged as the fashion began taking a more street-style influence from the zoot suits of the pachucos. Similar to their Los Angeles counterparts, the Teddy boys would become the target of sensationalized news media who reported on the ‘criminal’ activity of youth associated with the fashion trend. The stylized suits became the identifying marker for potential gang members and criminals, creating a wide-spread distaste for both the style and the young men and women who adopted the long suits, slick duck-tailed hairstyles and accompanying thick-soled shoes known as “creepers.”
By the mid-1950s, the Teddy boy suits of the U.K. would eventually become influenced by American rock ’n' roll music that began to hit its shores. With the downfall of post-war ration controls in the U.K. and rise of availability of financial credit, Teddy boys and girls abandoned their tailored suits for leather jackets and motorcycles, giving rise to the youth subculture that would become known as rockers. Rockers also drew influence from the American “Greaser” youth subculture, who adopted their rock ’n' roll lifestyle as a rebellion from the attempts to re-establish traditional nuclear family roles in post-war America. While the term “greaser” was applied to the white working-class subculture as a result of their affinity for greased-back hair, Mexican-American working-class young men were already familiar with the term for another reason. By the time the U.S. greaser and U.K. rocker subcultures took flight, the term had long been used as a derogatory name for young Mexican-Americans who were subjected to jobs greasing the axles of carts in the mid-19th century. But, the greaser subculture would not only become an act of resistance through the reclamation of the identity, it would also be a source of pride for young Mexican-Americans who established a stronghold on the style. The greaser identity would continue to have a significant influence on young Mexican-American men and women throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s and most significantly today with the popularity of the rockabilly subculture.
While youth subcultures in both the U.K. and Los Angeles had root in economic influences on fashion and music, the 1970s would see the rise of a more proactive resistance youth movement. With both the U.K. and U.S. experiencing a shift in political paradigms that directly and adversely affected working-class families, disaffected youth sought rebellion through punk music and lifestyles. In the U.K., the 1970s saw an economic downturn — wide spread labor strikes and economic inflation gave way to rising unemployment, mainly among young people in Britain. Punk, a term used to describe both assertive music and gritty fashion styles, had a mix of anarchist and nihilist values. U.K. bands like the Buzzcocks and The Clash used the medium to openly criticize political figures and their polarizing economic policies.
Concurrently, the U.S. was again in a state of post-war distress, this time seeing more people openly resisting the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. A new political conservatism also began materializing as a response to the country’s civil rights movements of the 1960s; this tumultuous political push with working-class communities continued to fuel the Chicano movement which was largely made up of marginalized Mexican-American youth. In Los Angeles, the rise of political resistance among Mexican-Americans opened a platform for a punk subculture to take stage and permeate the music, fashion and art of an expanding social justice consciousness. As activists began politically organizing in communities, artists and musicians such as Alice Bags and The Plugz also began organizing punk shows in East L.A. underground venues and backyards, a tradition that is still kept alive among East L.A. youth today.
Back in the U.K., the punk scene of the early ’70s began evolving into a sound and style that connected with a generation of young people whose political dissatisfaction began turning to social ambiguity. Still like the generation before it, the culture was also heavily rooted in working-class communities. The rise of the Manchester scene in the 1980s, with bands like Joy Division, The Cure and The Smiths, attracted a subculture of alienated young people who were challenging the social norms of sexuality, navigating through inter-generational immigrant identity politics and still feeling the economic effects of the previous decade’s downfalls. This New Wave era of music and fashion would find it’s ways onto American soil as well, but while the trend of moody music and androgynous fashion began to fade away with the rise of house and grunge music, it continued to permeate and influence young Latinos in the U.S. The 1990s housed an era of young Latinos who, much like the punk rock generation before them, created a sense of community through house parties and party “crews.” While many of these “crews” were not specifically tied to any one street style, the influence of the Manchester era of music was very much alive. Crews like Salford Lads, a group of young teenaged Latinos in the San Fernando Valley who took their name from the club made famous by The Smiths, looked to replicate the party atmosphere found at the famous Hacienda club which housed many of Manchester’s famous musicians. In doing so, they also attempted to set trends that incorporated their own identity as Latinos who did not fall into the criminal stereotypes imposed on them by law enforcement and media.
What is it, then, that continues to draw young Latinos to the U.K. music and fashion aesthetic, and vice versa. As Salford Lad, Ernie Prado recalls, the desire to emulate and subsequently mold the aesthetic into something of their own was a means to build a network of brotherhood and sisterhood among young Latinos who were seeking to connect in a time when political and economic forces sought to isolate them. Today, Latino L.A. youth culture remains, as “Tastemakers & Earthshakers" calls it, a kaleidoscope of music and fashion which is not just a sociocultural aesthetic of the generation, but an engine of political power and resistance.
Top image: Janette Beckman, "Hoyo Maravilla, East L.A. 1983," 1983. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist