Monday, July 16, 2012

Canadian Zoot Suiters

12 June 1944 Globe
The zoot suit, was a Second World War fashion trend that begs explanation.  Young men would don what Jeff Keshen describes as "wide-brimmed gangsterish-looking fedoras, long and loose-fitting jackets with padded shoulders, high-waisted baggy trousers pegged at the ankles, and brightly coloured shirts with huge bow ties."  (Keshen,Saints, Sinners and Soldiers,p 207).  During the war in North America, zoot-suiters' wild fashions and spastic swing jazz rhythms were associated with juvenile delinquency and frivolous waste.

Due to wartime controls on dyes and textiles, the very suits themselves were considered unpatriotic.  Keshen notes that the backlash against these bombastic youths had much to do with the panicky press coverage of the 1943 Los Angeles, zoot-suit riot.  Sailors from the Chavez Ravine naval base, doled out some extreme beatings, and tore clothes from the civilian youth, who were perceived to have attacked sailors. 

Canadian press associated zoot suiters with the jitterbug, clearly a spastic expression of loose morals.  Tensions between servicemen and zoot suiters were greatest in Toronto and Montreal.  In the later city, violence was meted out to both sides, spilling over to Verdun, where the Dance Pavilion was raided by mob of 400 sailors.

In the summer of 1943, Toronto servicemen had ripped the clothes off the youngsters and tossed them in the lake.  A Globe and Mail article which predicted the swift end of the fad, patriotically ridicules the outlandishly clad youngsters.  One "youthful veteran of this war" is quoted as a representative of enlisted men:
I know how the servicemen feel.  They have exchanged their civilian clothes for a uniform of which they are very proud.  They feel a lot of these kids wearing the funny clothes should be either in the army, navy or air force.  And when, as was the case at Sunnyside recently, one zoot-suit wearer 'took a crack' at a fellow in army uniform - well what could you expect?"("Zoot Suit's Day Wanes in Opinion of Tailors", Globe and Mail, 12 June 1943, p.5 )
Globe and Mail 19 June 1943, p.3
Interestingly, the same article suggests a First World War parallel to the phenomenon.  A Toronto psychologist is quoted as saying that, "back in 1917 and 1918, all the younger fellows who had not reached army age were making big money in ammunition plants, just as they are today.  They turned to silk shirts with wide, 'noisy' stripes."

Globe and Mail. 6 July 1944. p.3
The Globe and Mail reinforced the moral consensus that the zoot-suiters were juvenile delinquents.  One article chose to report on school-ground bullying to show the moral regressions of these rebellious youths. It is not often that the playground pecking order makes the news!  The response to the trend in wartime Canada shows the strong forces of conformity at work, and the efforts of youth to break from these mainstream norms.

During the 1990s swing revival, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies broke onto the international stage with their hit "Zoot Suit Riot".  The song holds up better than the music video.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Patriotic Rye: A Parody of Canada First

Thomas Phillips Thompson LAC C-38581
Thomas Phillips Thompson, was a Canadian satirist and social reformer.  In the 1870s, Thompson wrote for Toronto's Telegraph as well as the Mail, where his lampooning of George Brown, the Grits and the Globe would become well known to the readers of the conservative press.  His pseudonym, Jimuel Briggs was used to publish a fictitious autobiography incorporating some of his satirical journalism under the title, The Political Experiences of Jimuel Briggs, D.S., Graduate of Coboconk University. (1873)

His embellishment of Thomas Moss's 1873 attempt at election under a Canada First platform shows that patriotism could extend to the type of alcohol one preferred.  Thompson satirizes the zeal of the Canada First movement, which in 1874 formed the Canadian National Association, a political party which went nowhere.   The scene portrays the founding fathers of the party searching for a Canadian nationalist identity in the bottom of bottle:
There were fully twenty of us involved with the idea of Canadian nationality.  Previous to our proceeding to business, one of those moved that we should wet the New Party, a proposition that was wildly encored.  'I move,' continued he, 'that we order a dozen bottles of Bass, or perhaps the party would prefer some hot Irish whiskey?'
     I rose with concentrated indignation in my glance, and proceeded to excoriate the cuss. 'Do I hear aright? Have we already a traitor in our midst? Is it possible that any one of those here assembled to vindicate the glorious cause of Canadian nationalism is so lost to manhood, so degraded and servile a being as to advocate the use of such derogatory foreign beverages as Bass and Irish whiskey?'
     'Never! Never! shall I be so false to our glorious motto "Canada First" so as to endorse such a proposition.  Let us have Canadian old rye, hot and sweetened with the extract of the maple - the noblest tree of the forest to whose trunk the emblematic Moss clings as tightly as our candidate does to the principles of Canadian nationality - and some lemon in it - beg pardon, gentlemen, I retract the lemon, I forgot that was a foreign ingredient.' [...]
    That night, under such auspicious circumstances, the Canadian party  was formed, the germ of its existence being stimulated into growth by Canada's national beverage. [...]
     We again moistened the roots of the Maple and adjourned.As cited in Ramsay Cook  The Regenerators (p.155-56):
After a sojourn to the United States, Thompson returned to Canada in 1879, when his wit was turned against the emerging industrial order.  Thompson was increasingly concerned with labour issues, was associated with the Knights of Labor, and continued to lobby for socialist causes decades into the twentieth-century.