Rebel Chic: How Generations of Latinos used Style as Resistance
Punks, adelitas, pachucas, cholas – despite their very different sartorial choices, they all have something in common: using that style as resistance. Fashion was a part of their movements whether they were fighting in the Mexican Revolution or fighting against racial injustice in 1960s America.
I first learned of the phrase “style as resistance” from the incredible J.C. De Luna, aka Barrio Dandy. A California-based men’s accessories designer, De Luna documents his impeccable style on Instagram and shares fabulous vintage photos of some of the sharpest men of color in recent fashion history. (Seriously, if you haven’t followed him, you don’t know what you are missing.)
Since then, I have dived deep into Latino style history and found an amazing link between some of the most significant Latino social justice movements, cultural shifts and empowerment campaigns, and the look that each group adopted. This isn’t an exhaustive exploration of the hundreds of ways that Latinos have styled their resistance. Nor is this intended to reduce their movements or cultures down to their fashion choices. It is, however, a look at how several groups used style as a way to fight the power, create a counter culture or simply express themselves, so we might be inspired to make brave style choices of our own.
These soldaderas were instrumental in fighting in the Mexican Revolution, an extraordinary feat for the time. While it was a people’s revolution and fighters didn’t necessarily wear uniforms, we’ve come to know the Adelita look. Through pictures, songs and artistic depictions, we see Adelitas in their ankle-length skirts, bullets strapped across their chests and wide brimmed hat, often with a rifle in their hands. Today the Adelitas are honored through song and especially through Mexican folklorico dance where performers still don the Adelita “uniform.”
The long jackets with thick padded shoulders, nipped-in waists and full sleeves worn by the pachucos of the 1940s has become a symbol of chicano style in World War II-era America. The voluminous pants tapered at the ankle and stylish accessories the suit demanded were made for the swing dance halls, but were also a statement of Mexican American and African American pride. Zoot suits stood apart from the traditional menswear of the day and those who wore them were sometimes deemed ostentatious, un-American or symbols of rebellion. During the Zoot Suit Riots, American military men, angered by the suits and attitude they thought unpatriotic, attacked zoot-suit wearing pachucos in Los Angeles.
With their poofy hair-up-half-down hairstyles, flower hairpins and short skirt suits, the pachucas were the female counterparts to the zoot suiters. While their outfits may appear demure to current eyes, their look was rebellious for the era. Above the knee skirts, their unique makeup style and form fitting clothes served to set them apart from the all-American, patriotic aesthetic of the WWII era, according to this fantastic piece from Vice. Their radical look would spread across heavily Mexican parts of the U.S. and become iconic.
According to the organization’s own website, the Chicano power organization was the first to demonstrate against police brutality in East Los Angeles, challenged the educational system, founded chapters throughout the Southwest, and protested the high number of Chicano casualties in Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s. The group was easily identifiable by their namesake brown berets and military style clothing worn by both the men and women of the organization that lent them an air of power and unification in a divisive and violent era. While only members wore the official look, military style became increasingly popular among Latino youth of the era.
The next incarnation of the Pachuca look was the chola look. Pencil thin eyebrows, dark-lined lips and men’s work wear were often a part of the look. The look, for better or worse, was associated with gang culture, but more than that it represented a shift in the female power structure. While the pachucas were more feminine, the cholas embraced a more street-tough style wearing the baggy khaki pants, sneakers, and white undershirts that the male cholos wore.
Decidedly different from the Mexican Americans that loved Mexicano, Tejano or traditional Latin music, these kids wanted to thrash and defy Mexican American stereotypes with their spiky hair and leather. While Latin American punk music had been gaining ground in South America, and Mexican punk bands were plenty, a new crop of Chicano punk bands on this side of the border reflected the U.S. Latino experience in a way that other punk music couldn’t and consequently resonated with a number of Mexican American youth throughout the country.
During a recent interview streamed live on Facebook at SXSW, the band Prayers was asked to explain their style. “Our look represents empowerment,” they said. And while many Latinos have embraced the Goth look, cholo goth is a different kind of aesthetic. They merge some of the dark glam of goth with the tough looking tattoos, shaved heads and unmistakably Chicano/Latino vibe of the cholo. It seems like a way to embrace both identities without falling into either stereotype.
Millennial Cholas or the New Homegirls
A new generation of millennial are embracing the giant hoops, deep maroon lips, old English letters and airbrushed clothing designs that Latinas wore in the 80s and 90s. They are reenvisioning the style made popular the world over by Mi Vida Loca for women who were too young to live the lifestyle the first time around. What’s even more exciting is that these new homegirls are using their sense of style to promote and express their stances on social justice causes close to them like intersectional feminism, body acceptance and Chicana visibility.
I hope we can all one day graduate to this level of advanced style. Older caballeros are skipping the guayaberas in favor of 50s and 60s inspired tailored suits complete with skinny ties, flamboyant accessories and impeccable footwear. They often top their look with pricey-looking hats and sunglasses. The entire look is vintage chic, sometimes pachuco-inspired, but undeniably modern. Dandy-ism is embraced by men of color the world over, in part, to showcase their sartorial elegance and combat stereotypes.