Gangs

January 25, 2010

Gangster Clothing: Dressing for Success In Prison

Gang members show their colors with their choice of attire.

by Richard Valdemar


Tavo (a gang moniker) poses for photos in homes in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Richard Valdemar.

Have you ever wondered why gang members wear the ridiculous costume that they do? Why do they wear their pants sagging below their butts exposing their underwear? There's actually a company that stitches boxer-type underwear into the baggy pants to achieve the baggy pants clown look.

In a different era, gang members of the 1920s and 1930s were dressed in expensive suits and wore shirts and ties. But in the 1940s, American Pachucos wore the Zoot Suit. The Zoot Suit was a sign of rebellion against American culture. During the war, most things were rationed for the war effort, including cloth. The amount of material used to make a suit was limited, especially non-essential elements like lapels and pleated trousers. Military clothing was dyed in muted colors and cut to a tailored trim look. So rebellious youths had their suits cut from bold bright colors. Exaggerated lapels and baggy pants "pegged" at the cuffs, as opposed to military bell-bottom pants.

Many Zoot Suiters refused to serve in the military and attacked uniformed military servicemen on leave in American cities. Remember "Mighty Mouse" cartoons? This cartoon series depicted "Oil Can Harry" and his Zoot-Suited gang fighting the patriotic uniformed Mighty Mouse. This was an attempt to depict the cultural conflict between Zoot Suiters and Americans (of every race) that supported the war effort. My Hispanic father fought in Los Angeles in the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. However, he was dressed in his U.S. Army uniform when he took on the Pachuco gangs. This anti-Pachuco gang attitude in the Hispanic community has been written out of our revisionist history by academia, which seem to see every significant historical event as radical or class warfare.

Even today, the Zoot Suit is considered "formal wear" for the well-dressed gangsta. Popular gang lifestyle magazines such as "Lowrider" and "Teen Angel" often feature photographs and drawings of Zoot-Suited gang members.

After WWII, the Army Air Corps leather flight jacket and nylon flight jackets with "nose art" pin ups and military insignias became very popular with rebellious youngsters. The leather jacket especially became standard wear with the motorcycle crowd. This was more apparent after the Marlon Brando movie "The Wild One."

In the 1950s, these jackets became identified, along with white T-shirts and blue jeans with rolled-up cuffs, as street-gang clothing. But something was changing in the California Juvenile facilities, county jails, and state prisons. Incarcerated gang members were being dressed in institutional uniforms. Taking their time behind bars as a sign of honor, gang members developed a fashion style based on their institutional dress.

Since teen gang members were usually smaller than the average military man, and surplus military clothing was used by these institutions for uniforms, the clothing tended to be large and baggy—besides, no one in this predatory environment wanted tight close fitting clothing. Status in custody was displayed by wearing new, especially large baggy clothing, ironed or pressed to military-like creases.

Surplus Navy bell-bottom dungarees became known as "blues" or "county jeans." Surplus Army khaki pants and oversized white T-shirts were standard-issue in several Los Angeles juvenile facilities. Even in the 70s and 80s, I remember many times contacting gang members in East Los Angeles or the South Central Los Angeles area wearing clothing stenciled with "Property of the Los Angeles County Jail."

State prison-made shoes, red and blue railroad bandannas, blue jean jackets, and blue Navy surplus wool watch caps were popular prison issue items of clothing. Juvenile inmates in California often ended up at Conservation Camps and the Youth Authority Fire Camps; these items were also issued there. Military cloth belts, wool Pendleton shirts, and brown canvas "camp jackets" were worn back in the barrio or ghetto as items of pride. This counterculture self identification with a lifestyle behind bars just about guaranteed a return to this environment.

In the 1970s, Crips made their appearance in the streets of Los Angeles. In the 1960s, African-American gangsters dressed a cut above the average kid at Compton High. Black slacks, white shirts and one-inch ties, three-quarter-length trench coats with hoodlum priest collars, and stingy brimmed hats, complemented by sweaters and Italian or "French toed" shoes were commonly worn by members of the Gents, Roman Pearls, Bartenders, and Slauson Village.

But the Crips wore cheap plaid flannel shirts, baggy khaki or Dickie style pants with suspenders hanging down. This gave the sagging pants look. They wore golf caps, tennis shoes, and a walking cane or golf club to complete the Crip gangster look. This was a major step down, a ghetto look. Later gang members dropped the suspenders and cocked the baseball cap visor up, or to the left or right, or turned it backwards, in order to look different … like everybody else.

MTV and music videos featuring gangsta rap stars and their gangsta entourages strongly influenced gang members in the 1980s. Gaudy jewelry and gold capped teeth or "bling" became popular. At the same time, legitimate clothing manufacturers began producing gang-like clothing, in the hip-hop and the gangster-grunge looks. Shoes, jackets, and hats were manufactured with hidden compartments called "sweet spots" for hiding your stash. The result was that finding non-gang-like clothing for teens became difficult. I could list numerous incidents where non-gang young people became victims of gangs because they looked like rival gang members.

Going back to the 1970s, Hispanic gangs divided California into north and south. The southern Hispanics called themselves Surenos and identified with the Mexican Mafia prison gang, the number 13—"M" is the 13th letter of the alphabet and represents the Mexican Mafia—and the color blue. They also adopted the Dodgers baseball cap (LA logo on a blue field).  The northern Hispanics called themselves Nortenos, identifying with the Nuestra Familia prison gang, the number 14—"N" is the 14th letter and represents Norteno or Nuestra Familia—and the color red. They adopted the San Francisco Giants baseball cap (SF on a red background). Later Crips would also identify with the color blue, and the Bloods with red.

In the 1990s, many gangs went "low profile," switching to sportswear such as football jerseys and tennis shoes to display their gang affiliation. Only those "in the know" about the hidden meaning of logos and colors were supposed to recognize them.

After the L.A. Dodger cap, used by both the Crips and the Surenos, we saw a wave of kids wearing Pittsburgh Pirates caps in Compton. "P" on the cap stood for Compton Piru (the original anti-Crip gang). Later it was the North Carolina caps, which stood for Neighborhood Crips. Both Hispanics and Blacks used the Colorado Rockies caps. For the Crips, CR stood for Crips Rule, and the Hispanics said it was "Canta Ranas" (translated as "singing frogs"), an old-school Whittier gang. The Kansas City Chiefs cap with the letters "KC" became "Kill Crips" when worn by a Blood. And soon, every sports logo translated to some gang identifier. Even the sports clothing manufacturers got into the act by changing team colors to suit gangs. Boston Red Sox caps came out in red to suit Blood gangs, and the Cincinatti Reds cap turned blue for Crip fans. Every gang claimed the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders colors.

I would laugh when I would see groups of Hispanic kids walking around in football jerseys and baseball caps. It was surprising how many blue, black, or brown colors they wore, but never a red jersey or cap. For some strange reason most of the jerseys displayed the numbers 13 or 18 (18th Street), and the rest were Raiders. In northern Califas, it would be the colors red, brown, and black, and the number 14. But to the average citizen, they did not look like a gang.

A couple of years ago the infamous gangsta rapper 50 Cent advertised a vest worn over the shirt to mimic a ballistic vest, but was for looks only and not bullet resistant. There are gangster clothing manufacturers who make hemp (marijuana) clothing.

Today, if you want to know how the well-dressed gangster will look, pick up a magazine such as Teen Angel, Lowrider, FEDS, XXL, Vibe, or Source. Or catch the latest gangsta rap music video on MTV or FUSE.

There is an unconfirmed underground gang rumor that gang cops started the whole "sagging" pants fad in order to more easily catch gang members when they run.

View our "Interpreting Gangster Clothing" photo gallery.