In 1994, Nigeria-born, New Jersey-raised photographer Chi Modu captured legendary rapper Eazy E in the streets of his local neighbourhood: Compton, LA. Posing with his vintage 1964 Chevrolet Impala, Eazy E is dressed in a crisp Compton snapback with dark visor shades, a black shirt and a pair of baggy, raw 501 jeans that are freshly pressed with front centre crease. While Eazy’s look is signature to the West Coast gangster style that he and the rest of his Compton group NWA brought into the mainstream during the 90s, a closer look at some of the details reveals a deeper lineage to Chicano street culture in LA. Take for instance the loc sunglasses, a style worn by Mexican American street gangs, or the blackletter typeface or Gothic lettering that adorns his cap; a trademark renowned for being adorned on memorial garbs created by Chicano communities in LA. And the pressed baggy jeans? They’re also part of the Chicano uniform that traces all the way back to the high-waisted zoot suits worn by Pachucos in the ’30s-’40s.

The truth is Chicano motifs have long been implemented into West Coast style; a look that has permeated popular culture and reached runways and clothing racks around the globe. From budding labels to high fashion houses, many industry players have more or less leeched off the subculture that was initially spawned from social oppression experienced by Latino locales since the Mexican Repatriation of 1929—an unfortunate circumstance when the U.S. government deported approximately 2 million people of Mexican descent.

Compton, CA- 1994: Eazy E (Eric Wright) with his low-rider in Compton, in 1994 – This photo is from the Defining Years of Hip-Hop 1990-2000 (Photo by Chi Modu/diverseimages)

Chicano streetwear specialist Spanto of Born x Raised is a LA native and born from Mexican heritage. Growing up in a predominantly Latino neighbourhood, Spanto’s experiences around Mexican traditions was very prominent. Speaking with Hypebeast in 2017 on the influence of Chicano style, Spanto explains,

“Everybody in Los Angeles was inspired or affected by Chicano culture. LA is not a European-based city, the Mexican culture is very dominant here, the first street in Los Angeles was Olvera Street (1781)”

In the same Hypebeast feature, fashion designer Willy Chavarria explained to Hypebeast,

“I always thought the best styles came from the hood. There is a sense of appreciation there that makes the clothing more valuable. And there is more originality in working with what you got.”

For Chavarria, the spirit of the cholo is everything. His eponymous label embraces the unique style that he saw growing up in California in the 80s and 90s, taking the looks of the Chicano prowling the streets of LA in lowriders and transporting that to the vaunted runways of New York Fashion Week.

Willy Chavarria Spring/Summer 16 with pleated denim pants that nod to the creased Khakis of vintage Chicano style

Traditionally, the cholo look is typified by workwear basics, like clean button-down shirts and oversized Dickies. The khakis in particular are worn with tight belts that cinch the waist and create pleats. The backs of the pants are often pinned up so that they don’t drag on the floor. Chavarria explains to Hypebeast how the uniform of the Chicano male was a clean, crisp style which mastered the reinterpretation of basic workwear into an elegant symbol of racial identity.

“This is why the Cholos (Chicano gang members) exemplified the look as a symbol of cultural identity. The Mexican gangs were originally less of what we see today in gang culture. They were simply forming a string identity after having an innate loss of identify with the colonization of the Western states.”

Today, Chavarria’s interpretation of this style comes in both denim and wool, with oversized waist bands that are folded and snapped into place to create the same effect.

Photograph of Chicano gangs from Joseph Rodríguez’s book East Side Stories: Gang Life in East LA

Prior to the emergence of Cholo style in the late 1960s, Chicano youth created the Pachuco subculture, adopting the baggy, draped zoot suit of Harlem jazz musicians, making it their own. From Texas to California, Pachucos faced discrimination for displaying ethnic pride and resisting white racism, a dynamic that culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. Here, American servicemen attacked teenage zoot suiters, stripping them of their clothes and beating them up, angered because many Chicanos were ineligible to serve during World War II due to immigration status and because they appeared to flout wartime restrictions on wool and silk use in their oversized zoot suits. Per @andrewdluecke, co-author of @coolthebook with Greg Foley @gregardless, a history of youth subcultures

“This was an early example of a rebellious subculture being forced to defend their identity with their own blood. As styles changed in the 1950s, Pachucos replaced the draped zoot suit jackets with wool gabardine shirts worn buttoned to the top, but kept the baggy, pleated trousers, worn pressed with high waists, a style that still exists among Cholos today. These zoot suit pants also influenced how some Cholos would later wear their jeans and chinos, pressed with a crease that mimics a pleat.”

Photographers like @merrickmortonphoto have been key to documenting LA’s Chicano culture throughout the 80s and 90s, any many of his famous photographs document the style of the subculture.

High-waisted zoot suits worn by Pachucos in the ’30s-’40s.

Chicano culture didn’t just influence LA Hip-Hop style though. Andrew Luecke explains that before the 90s, the connection between Cholo culture and skateboarding runs a bit deeper, dating back to the late 1970s, when Dogtown skaters like Tony Alva, Nathan Pratt, and Jim Muir from Venice and Santa Monica overlapped with that subculture, donning Pendleton shirts and even bandanas and Locs sunglasses. Chavarria explained to Hypebeast,

“Cholo culture has been massively influential in men’s fashion. Cholos created the baggy pant. The look was never quite appreciated in the fashion industry until it was adopted by the skate culture. Then, skate brands began to imitate Cholo and Chicano styling to sell to white kids.”

A couple years ago, original Dogtowner Stacy Peralta told the Camera in the Sun website,

“When I went to Venice High School, the Latino gangs used to wear the same exact thing that we surfers wore, but they wore it differently. We wore baggy Levis or Pinwhale cords, T-shirts and a long button-down Pendleton, and these shoes called Winos. Well, the Latino & the African-American gangs, they wore the same exact thing we wore, except theirs were starch-pressed. They were perfect.”

Throughout the 80s, Venice skaters like Jesse Martinez kept the Skate-Cholo crossover style alive, until it became mainstream in skateboarding in the 1990s, with pros like Andy Roy wearing Pendletons, Dickies shorts, & high white socks. Today, skaters like Sammy Baca also sport the style.

When it comes to asking whether appreciation vs re-appropriation of Chicano style there’s mixed views. Spanto believes that “as whole, it should be treated with respect. This is a culture with values and traditions, not a style or fashion trend. We actually lived this shit. This is a part of our lives.” For Chavarria, he believes that the fashion industry is graced with the influences of so many cultures and subcultures and thats what he feels keeps it exciting.

“Chicano and Cholo fashion have always had direct influence on other “street” cultures with the crossover of music and style. I think that the re-appropriation of Chicano influence is simply a compliment to great style. I love it. I mean it will never be as good as the original.”

Lueke, notes that, Pachucos and Cholos have been ripped off more than any other subculture, all while receiving zero credit in the mainstream.

“So, if you’re interested in learning about these subcultures, it’s crucial to show respect & go to the actual sources themselves. Fortunately, there’s tons on Insta, so go follow @southernhispanics7, @ixestreets, and @oggreenspans, a store that’s been keeping Pachucos & Cholos dipped in gear since 1928″

Portrait of Homeboys at Elysian Park-Los Angeles 1984 by Merrick Morton
Portrait of two Homeboys -East Los Angeles 1984 by Merrick Morton

Portrait El Hoyo Mara East Los Angels 1983 by Merrick Morton