Seer Sucker Material
Seersucker suits don’t get a lot of love these days.
The Republican National Committee’s “Comms College” — a training course for the GOP’s young communication staffers — recently instructed its students not to wear seersucker suits on television. (Whether this is due to the suit’s old fashioned reputation, or simply the fact that seersucker can look wavy on camera, was not disclosed. Maybe both).
And outside the halls of government, plenty of gents think that donning a seersucker suit will make them look like they should be selling ice cream from a truck, or pacing a Southern courtroom.
In truth, such concerns are not invalid. A seersucker suit can look like a dated costume or a pair of shapeless pajamas.
But, such an outcome is hardly inevitable. Done right, a seersucker suit can look sharp and debonair. And of course, its functional benefits are unassailable: it’s easily washable, you never have to press it, and no other suit will keep you cooler during the warm summer months.
Handsome and functional? Sounds like a manly combination to me.
Having sweated out plenty of hot and humid Oklahoma summers in a gray wool suit, I’ve wanted to own a seersucker suit for a while now. This year, I finally followed through, and here’s what I’ve learned about wearing one with real panache.
What Is Seersucker?
Seersucker is a fabric made with a unique cotton weave that causes the thread to bunch together in some places, giving the fabric its trademark bumpy appearance (called “pucker”). Typically, the pattern on seersucker alternates between smooth and puckered pinstripes, though the puckering pattern can be checkered as well.
This alternating puckering pattern, combined with the lightweight cotton fabric, is what gives seersucker its trademark cooling property. The puckering causes more of the fabric to be held away from the body, allowing greater air circulation between you and your clothes.
The History of Seersucker Suits
Clothing oneself in seersucker duds was popular during the British colonial period, especially in the heat of India. It was worn largely by laborers and servants who wanted to keep cool whilst they performed their work. The word “seersucker” is in fact derived from the East Indian variation of the Persian shir o shakkar or shir o shekar, meaning milk and sugar. The allusion denotes seersucker’s unique combination of stripes that are smooth (like milk) and rough (like sugar).
Seersucker was brought to America sometime in the second half of the 19th century, and first worn by men in the railroad and oil industries. Laborers donned overalls, work jackets, and caps made from a heavy-duty, dark blue version of the seersucker fabric. With its durable but ventilated nature, such garments were prized by men who had to work alongside hot locomotives, engines, and furnaces.
Seersucker thus developed an association with blue collar men, and was ignored by the middle and upper classes. That began to change when Joseph Haspel created the first seersucker suit in 1909. Based in New Orleans, Haspel had been manufacturing seersucker overalls for factory workers when he struck on the idea of creating a sharp suit that gentlemen about town could wear in the hot weather months. To promote the wash-n’-wear functionality of his suits, he dove into the ocean while wearing one and then showed his associates how it had dried completely by dinnertime.
Still, it was hard to shake the public’s perception of seersucker as a poor man’s suit. That was until the 1920s, when students at Princeton adopted the style, donning it for lawn parties and reveling in their subversion of the material’s economic associations (yes, hipsters have been around for far longer than you know).
For the next few decades, the seersucker suit enjoyed great popularity amongst college men of the Northeast and gents of all kinds in the sweltering South. Writers wore them when vacationing at the beach; Congressman donned them while legislating at the Capitol; and yes, lawyers grabbed their seersucker lapels while making their closing arguments in Southern courtrooms.
And then…air conditioning arrived. As more and more private homes and public establishments installed A/C in the 1950s, seersucker’s cool, lightweight properties became less and less necessary. Men figured they’d wear the same suit to work that they wore all the year round; they’d only be outside when getting in and out of their car, after all. And so the popularity of seersucker suits began a steady decline.