El Pachuco and the Art of 'Zoot Suit'


Zoot Suit © 1978, Ignacio Gomez I Smithsonian American Art Museum
Zoot Suit © 1978, Ignacio Gomez I Smithsonian American Art Museum

If the stage production of "Zoot Suit" made El Pachuco the flag bearer of identity, its poster became the garrison flag.

The emblematic pose with a seamless line of wardrobe and character against a Los Angeles sky would make a stunning mural on a downtown wall. The art, by Ignacio Gomez, made the cultural archetype a graphic art myth in 1978, when he was commissioned to create it for the Luis Valdez production that uses El Pachuco as a one man Greek Chorus. The urban Mexican American experience became a literary form through "Zoot Suit," and the 47 1/4 x 33 inch screen printed image, now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, signified a bold theatrically.

This week of June marks the 70th anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots, which flowed from the social fallout of the 1942 Sleep Lagoon Trials. As an American tragedy, the events remained sequestered in street art and song until Luis Valdez workshopped the story to Los Angeles stages in 1978. This year marks the 35th anniversary of that Center Theater Group's production, which makes 2013 the same anniversary for the art.

The zoot suit, as a title character, is center stage as worn by Edward James Olmos' El Pachuco, who made the wardrobe a prop as much as a costume by moving onstage in smooth physical lines.

In Gomez's art, the elegant silhouettes of the zoot suit are touched with theatrical lighting along the arms and shoulders, connecting it to highlights on the crown and brim of the black fedora. A green band in the hat matches the front handkerchief that signifies dressing up for the night, and maintaining it, was ritualistic.

It turned the late-1970s costume -- based on early 1940s wardrobe -- into a visual context of the play's political prompts.

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In 1985's "The Labyrinth of Solitude," Octavio Paz wrote that the historic pachuco zoot suit was an exaggeration of fashion, worn to "its ultimate consequences and turns it into something aesthetic."

One principle that rules in North American fashions is that clothing must be comfortable, and the pachuco, by changing ordinary apparel into art, makes it "impractical." Hence it negates the very principles of the model that inspired it. Hence its aggressiveness.

Paz goes on to say that in the case of the pachuco, there is ambiguity. The clothing centers the attention on him -- a self-imposed isolation by style -- but by adapting western wear the social uniform "pays homage to the society he is attempting to deny."

That ambiguity may also be seen in the art. El Pachuco shows his back to the city, seen in the distance as gray shades. City Hall is in the middle of 1940-era skyline, where civic and military authority failed to be the sanctuary of fairness. With the art having no reference to newspaper one-sided coverage, it suggests media wasn't the real instigator of anarchy.

Luis Valdez with the cast of ''Zoot Suit'' | Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library
Luis Valdez with the cast of ''Zoot Suit'' | Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library

The art supports how fashion, as costume, is "an emblem of ethnicity and a way of negotiating an identity" that used Harlem Jazz roots, as Stuart Cosgrove wrote in "Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare," a 1984 article from History Workshop Journal. He cites how the zoot suit was rebellion by how it became a "subcultural gesture that refused to concede to the manners of subservience" before it was adapted by Mexican-American culture. With the defiant pose, the zoot suit was a call to social action by the disenfranchised, as seen in the play, and later the film. Just as workmanlike denim and biker leather jackets were in the 1950s, or flower powered threads of ragged rebellion in the 1960s, the zoot suit became the uniform of youth counterculture.

Working as a deeper subtext is the background of the poster. Above El Pachuco is a field of blue stars. Below, clouds from the dusk -- or dawn's early light -- gives the Los Angeles sky a hint of an American flag. It supports the storyline of events that pitted patriotism against citizenry, and both sides had their specialized uniforms. Victory by servicemen was stripping away the zoot suits off the wearer.

Zoot Suit Jose Montoya I Courtesy of Center Theater Group
Zoot Suit Jose Montoya I Courtesy of Center Theater Group

In using the art for the poster, the Center Theater Group / Mark Taper Forum kept the image intact by using typography that did not interfere with the composition. It later became cluttered in its use for the film's poster, making commercial entertainment marketing another institution that stripped the zoot suit from its empowerment.

Gomez's style of using iconography for branding was a throwback to 1940s illustration form that, even with its commercial intent, could still be considered Chicano Art. The context coincides with Latino myth making, as the character is bigger than life in this form, which could be called Chicano Classical Realism.

That's a contrast to previous works that used the pachuco as iconography, which can resemble today's street art. In "Chicana and Chicano Art: ProtestArte," Carlos Francisco Jackson credits Jose Montoya's line drawing series of pachucos as a "cultural reclamation," including two works from 1978: the poster for the traveling exhibition "Jose Montoya's Pachuco Art: A Historial Update," and the 1978 poster for "Zoot Suit" during its workshop run. There, the pachuco is not slick or theatrical in its presentation of self, but has a causal urban slump against a backdrop of newspaper articles, as if it was a Los Angeles artifact finally being unwrapped.

In the Gomez rendition of a pachuco, the zoot suit became a cultural shield.

Ignacio Gomez
Ignacio Gomez

Ignacio Gomez is a East Los Angeles native, a graduate of Roosevelt High School, and studied commercial art at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, south of downtown Los Angeles, according to his online bio. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966, he painted murals at Fort Ord, California and Fort Hood, Texas. After an Honorable Discharge in 1968, he attended Art Center College of Design and graduated in 1970. His career was in full swing leading up to his Zoot Suit serigraph, and has yet to stop. He statue of Cesar E. Chavez, a repeated subject in his later work, will be dedicated in Riverside on Saturday, June 8, at University and Main. On June 7, Creative Arts Center Gallery in Burbank will hold a retrospective on Ignacio Gomez until June 27.

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