Style = Substance

Why are all these girls smiling?

All of these photos were taken from a Rookie-recommended Tumblr, Of Another Fashion, a digital archive of “the not-quite-hidden but too often ignored fashion histories of U.S. women of color,” curated by Minh-Ha Pham, an assistant professor in the art history and Asian-American studies departments at Cornell.

Pham writes of this picture:

The Daily News titled this photograph “Mexican American Female Gang” when it ran the photo in 1942, but the systematic criminalization of Mexicans in the 1940s as a justification for racially motivated attacks (especially directed at zoot suiters) makes me a little wary of the title. In any case, these women seem so utterly cool to me. They’ve been arrested and are sitting in a police station when this photo was taken but look at the nonchalant, almost bored, expression of Frances Silva on the upper left and the raised defiant chin of Josephine Gonzales on the bottom left, as well as the cavalier pose of Lorena Encina on the bottom right in her baggy zoot suit pants and perfect hair.

These girls look fly as hell. That’s a fact. Another fact? The 1940s were a supremely awful time to be Mexican-American. In L.A., where this photo was taken, most Mexicans (including Mexican-Americans) were living in poverty. Many of them were hired as temporary migrant workers, and Chicano youth, especially pachucos and their girl-gang counterparts, pachucas, were being criminalized and targeted by the police. Their style made them easy targets: the boys, and sometimes the girls too, wore zoot suits—superlong jackets with extra-wide lapels and padded shoulders and high-waisted pegged trousers.

Pachucas often styled their hair into the ultimate in badass coiffure: the pompadour (which you too can achieve with Hannah’s tutorial!), sometimes called a razor-blade hairdo, because supposedly these girls hid razor blades in their pouf in case they had to, you know, throw down. Some of them wore their skirts above the knee, with the heavily padded zoot jacket on top; others, like these three ladies, transgressed heteronormative expectations and wore full-on men’s zoot suits.

This photo, taken of three suspected members of a pachuca gang called the Black Widows as they were being rounded up by police, appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1942. It’s also the cover image for The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory, by Catherine Ramirez, which is a great book to check out if you’re interested in learning more about pachucas in Los Angeles.

The pachucas were represented as promiscuous, violent, lazy miscreants and ne’er-do-wells. They were often targeted and rounded up by the police and denied the legal rights that white Americans received—the most infamous of these cases being the Sleepy Lagoon Case. They were portrayed as threats to society because they refused to abide by the strictures of patriarchy, sexism, and racism, and what’s more? They seemed to be having a good time doing it. These girls smoked cigarettes out in the open. Some of them wore short skirts and showed more cleavage than was socially accepted. Others dressed like boys. They spoke Spanish in schools, where it was forbidden to do so. They talked back in decidedly un-ladylike ways and weren’t afraid to throw a punch when provoked. They were queering it up in the southwestern United States way before Bette Davis, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Gaga. And yet how many of us were presented with photos like this in our high school history classes? I certainly never was. When we talked about Mexican-American immigrants, we only ever saw images of men bending to pick grapes or lay railroad tracks. These two photos of pachucha girl gangs remind us that the politics of liberation are often entwined like summer vines with the politics of fashion.

Here’s a photo of three Japanese women, dressed to the muthafucking nines, flashing their best smiles at the camera. Guess where they’re going?

Manzanar: one of ten internment camps where more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, many of whom were U.S. citizens or legal residents, were detained, without trial, for up to four years during World War II. There’s no question that this was one of many fucked-up chapters in American history.

But the thing that’s so curious is: why are these girls smiling when they are being forced out of their homes and into an internment camp?

Cameras weren’t allowed in the camps, but a few photographers, including famous ones like Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, were permitted to come in and document everyday life. Apparently Adams had hoped to get some shots that would stir up public sympathy and outrage, but instead he got all these photos of Japanese-Americans smiling and vamping for the camera. (The photo above was taken by another photographer, Clem Albers.)

Which is to say, yes, these girls and women suffered. Yes, it is dehumanizing to mandate the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans, half of whom were children, but also, this isn’t just a story of how an entire group of people were put down, even if it’s partially a story about that. There are other parts too. Like the part about the women who staged a fashion show on Labor Day at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in Newell, California, in September 1942, as seen below.

Or how, even during internment, these girls were determined to look cute. And though that may sound like the height of triviality, it’s not. As the late, great civil-rights activist Dorothy Height once said, “Too many people in my generation fought for the right for us to be dressed up and not put down.”

This picture is actually by Ansel Adams. These girls were spending their adolescence in the middle of a desert, in an internment camp, but they were still going to curl their hair and polish their saddle shoes all the effin’ same.

The pompadour rears its head once more, this time in a photo of four high school girls attending biology class (also by Ansel Adams, at Manzanar in 1943).

This photo of four African-American women seated on the steps of a building at Atlanta University in Georgia in the 1890s reminds me of the portraits of middle-class African-Americans that W.E.B. DuBois and Thomas J. Calloway displayed at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 to counter stereotypes of African-Americans.

This picture of six African-American women sitting watching a game at Howard University reminds us that it wasn’t only white women who donned flapper styles, but brown and yellow and black ladies too. (Can you imagine dressing this well to go to a baseball game nowadays?)

And here’s one of Howard University beauty queens posing on a couch in 1947 (there’s that magnificent pouf again!). Historical black colleges like Howard were formed in direct response to Jim Crow laws, which prevented African-Americans not only from attaining higher education at universities that were open to whites but also excluded them from competing in beauty pageants with whites. In the 1940s, the Miss America beauty pageant required contestants to trace their ancestry as far back as possible—ideally all the way back to the Mayflower—and fill out a biological data sheet to prove their whiteness. But that doesn’t mean we should view these six beauty queens sitting on the couch solely as victims. There’s all kinds of fierceness going on this photo. And who knows what’s going through their minds as they pose for the camera, lipstick perfect, pouf perfect, legs perfectly crossed?


Sometimes, even an act as small and gentle as figuring out what kind of hairspray will keep your pouf poofy when you’re living in an internment camp in the middle of the desert, or in a city that deems you criminal because of the way you speak or the way you look, or in a country that passes legislation preventing you from attending the same school or competing in the same pageants as your white peers, can be a radically subversive act.

Let’s slow clap for these girls, let’s slow clap for ourselves, and let’s slow clap for future generations of girl gangs who won’t ever give up the right to dress up and not be put down. ♦


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  • Kathryn November 28th, 2011 11:26 PM

    This is a wonderful and really interesting post! What inspiring, badass ladies.

  • Chimdi November 28th, 2011 11:34 PM

    UGH I totally relate! I happen to be Nigerian, not Chinese, but whenever slavery comes up in class (and I am one out of like, three black people at my school) it is SO terribly awkward!

    • Jenny November 30th, 2011 12:16 AM

      Ugh, I’m sorry you have to deal with that bullshit.

  • Leilani November 28th, 2011 11:37 PM

    This is magnificent! I love the way it was written and the way it was presented. Thank you for this, really!

  • fizzingwhizbees November 28th, 2011 11:45 PM

    ooh, those flapper ladies are so cool it hurts.

  • neelybat November 28th, 2011 11:46 PM

    thank you so much for this post. these stories need to be told. xo

  • go.outside November 29th, 2011 12:31 AM

    Amazing post.

  • Catelyn November 29th, 2011 12:56 AM

    Whoo! The best post yet. I got chills all the way through. :)

  • Ellie November 29th, 2011 1:26 AM

    Bless this post! Women of color unite!

  • hollysh November 29th, 2011 2:19 AM

    What an excellent article. I actually almost shed a little tear of sentimental joy at the end. Thanks Jenny.

  • Ayla November 29th, 2011 6:12 AM

    So inspiring to see ladies of color be so dramatically fierce in the face of adversity.
    Other than the great sense of style on the surface, it just shows that they refused to go down without a fight.

    Also! colored flapper girls! who knew?

  • geriballmeow November 29th, 2011 6:34 AM

    This gave me chills! You make such a great point, that treating victims as victims KEEPS them victims, instead of opening our eyes to see them as fierce, wonderful, strong, diverse people. I already felt strongly on this point, but it’s a point that’s not often made. And you make it so well! Beautifully written.

  • Cahhhhhs November 29th, 2011 12:36 PM

    Jenny -

    Thanks for this post. The photos of the Japanese-American women going to/in internment camps reminds me of Linda Grant’s book, The Thoughtful Dresser (which I would highly recommend), in which she writes a short piece about the a pair of red heels which I believe is on display at the Holocaust Museum; she uses the shoe as a launching point to show that fashion, far from being trivial, helps to humanize us.

    • Jenny November 30th, 2011 12:16 AM

      Thank you for the recommendation! I am going to check it out for sure.

  • KayKay November 29th, 2011 3:11 PM

    I really loved this post!
    Maybe being a quarter Hong Kong chinese myself has something to do with that, who knows..

  • Shaynah November 29th, 2011 4:44 PM

    This is one of the best pieces Rookie has delivered so far. I cried for every woman, ever. So inspiring.

  • rhymeswithorange November 29th, 2011 5:51 PM

    “Here’s what I wish I knew back when I was in high school…: focusing only on the pain and degradation of any oppressed group of people does another kind of damage to those individuals”
    Which brings me to this video:
    We watched this in my asian history class at the beginning of the year. Because everyone was like, “yuck, asia!” No one should have to deal with single stories, yet they are so common.

    • Aine November 29th, 2011 6:22 PM

      XD I love that we both brought up this video. Great minds think alike, no?

      • rhymeswithorange November 29th, 2011 10:52 PM

        haha I’m glad someone else knows about it! It’s an awesome video. I love TED talks

    • Jenny November 30th, 2011 12:16 AM

      Yes! I originally had a section in this post about Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of the Single Story,” but ended up cutting that part out of the essay. I love that speech so much and I watch it at least once a month and try to show it to everyone I know. I’m so happy that you brought it up! Everyone should watch it!

  • Aine November 29th, 2011 5:59 PM

    Rookie, I do not think it is possible for you to be any more awesome. Thank you for showing me these fantastic ladies.
    This post actually reminded me of a TEDTalk about “the danger of a single story.” It’s really fascinating; check it out:

    • Jenny November 30th, 2011 12:17 AM

      Yes! Everyone should check it out. It’s so relevant and beautifully presented.

  • jeanette November 29th, 2011 7:19 PM

    Thank you

  • Whatsername November 29th, 2011 7:24 PM

    This is awe-inspiring.

  • Jenny November 30th, 2011 12:17 AM

    Thank you everyone for getting behind this post and these girls. Lots of love from my tiny corner of the world to all of you!

  • MaggieMae November 30th, 2011 2:55 AM

    I cannot tell you how much I loved reading this article. Your comments on the 2nd page about the hispanic girl gangs in the 1940′s. I read a essay in history last year on the impact of Latina women in history.

  • Bren November 30th, 2011 5:46 AM

    Thank you for posting this, I love seeing pictures of Mexican-American women back in the day being totally fierce. Of all the different women, no matter the race. I’m Mexican myself and I don’t know, those pictures are just amazing. I love how the women at the internment camps still dazzled themselves up. It’s just breathtaking.

  • diana94 November 30th, 2011 7:43 PM

    definitely one of the best rookie articles ever! im Mexican and i was an exchange student at the US last year, at first i was scared of people being racist but everybody treated me so well!! im glad all this stupid laws have changed

  • unicorn November 30th, 2011 9:51 PM

    not only are they all amazingly fierce, and not only is this a wonderfully written article that showcases the fact that white women were not the only people who wore fantastic clothes throughout history, BUT ALL THESE WOMEN HAVE AMAZING LEGS.

  • Pashupati December 16th, 2011 8:57 PM

    Holy cow, this is awesome.
    I found out recently about the chicanos while searching about another youth movements, but this definitely makes me want to learn more about it, and made me learn about other stuffs, and I saw the sheer awesomeness of People In The Universe.

  • SonjaIrene December 20th, 2011 7:46 PM

    This post is amazing! I’d love to see more writing about ladies of color on Rookie. The content is great, but it definitely doesn’t always seem the most accessible to girls of color. More like this, please!