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Seersucker’s Curious Class Struggle

The lightweight material seems to belong to the leisure class, but it wasn’t always that way.

Photo: Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast/Contour/Getty Images

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The seersucker suit! The very words conjure a genteel Southern wedding, the kind with copper mint julep cups and pastel tents. Or maybe the Kentucky Derby, with the blue-and-white wrinkled suit another ritual prop along with the hats and horses. The most common place it comes up is on a New Englander wearing a seersucker blazer with his Nantucket reds. It’s a throwback thing, a heritage thing. An affectation or bit of kitsch for play-acting and special occasions.

But it doesn’t have to be. There’s nothing predestined about seersucker’s status. It could be as common as poly-cotton blend. Why is a durable fabric the sole province of preppy dandies?

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Seersucker, and the seersucker suit, began in a very different place from garden parties and productions of To Kill A Mockingbird. In a hundred years the fabric went from cheap Civil War pillow and haversack material to visual shorthand for leisured, out-of-touch aristocrats. Suits made of seersucker shifted from necessity to indulgence as cultural associations overshadowed quality.

Seersucker is an old fabric, introduced to the American South in the middle 19th century via the British colonization of India. The name derives from the Persian shir o shakkar, milk and sugar,” referring to its white puckered stripes alongside smooth colored ones. Seersucker is a slack-tension weave, where yarn is bunched up in alternating bands of tight and loose weaves. Due to this weave, the taut raised stripes sit above the skin, allowing more circulation without sacrificing shape. Seersucker breathes.

Which made it an excellent material for train workers or anyone else spending all day in raging infernos. The classic blue and white train engineer cap and overalls? Seersucker. It was used in uniforms for steam engine workers, oil derrick men, and farm laborers. It was a working man’s uniform. When used for nonuniform purposes, it’s explained away as necessity. In 1903, when the Speaker of the House of Representatives Joseph Gurney Cannon was asked why he broke protocol and met President Roosevelt in a seersucker suit and not the traditional black frock coat, he replied: “’Cause the weather was damn hot!”

Meanwhile in New Orleans, the Haspel Company was successfully manufacturing work clothes, but in 1909 they began making suits out of the material they used for overalls. The cool, lightweight suit was billed as an alternative to both Northern flannels and fussy tropical blends. Inexpensive, lightweight, and drip-dry (so drip dry, in fact, that Joseph Haspel staged a PR stunt where he jumped into the ocean in a seersucker suit and hung it up to dry, only to wear it later that evening), the Haspel seersucker suit drove demand up enough to require new local weaving factories and processes.

Seersucker is sold as an Everyman’s suit, and so through the mathematics of class snobbery, it becomes “the poor man’s suit.” But it was also the lawyer’s suit for endless sweltering court days. It was popular with legislators during hot summers, and was a seasonal necessity for any businessman in humid Southern cities. The seersucker suit became fashion, but practical, regional fashion. Cheap fashion. And it was still linked to uniforms. The Women’s United States Marine Corp’s summer outfits were made of seersucker.

Senators pose on Trent Lott’s “Seersucker Thursday.”
Photo: McClatchy-Tribune/Getty

By the 1930s, however, the explosion of wild college culture and their students’ irreverence for past norms meant exciting things for seersucker. Princeton University, that northernmost fortress of Southern gentry, still required suit jackets on campus events, and those Princeton boys were not going to wear tweeds and woolens in the Garden State’s summer heat. Seersucker was both a comfortable way of obeying the rules and a method for expressing real or desired Southern bonafides. Call it the trucker cap of the Jazz Age, but the scions at Princeton could party all night in seersucker and not worry too much if it ended up in a lake or balled up in a heap. Its very cheapness and disposability was liberating.

Not long after, Hollywood people (those reprobates) were wearing seersucker suits as far north as Martha’s Vineyard. The Mason-Dixon line breached, the WASP old guard, represented by the Luces’ Time-Life empire, deemed it an acceptable, if informal, outfit for Yankees. They couldn’t stop all the new California money from wearing it in LA’s Capri-like climate. Best to roll with the trends.

Before long, the “Poor Man’s suit” and material of convenience gained beaucoup social capital. It was associated with youth, with frivolity, with sunny resort hotels and cocktails by the pool. By 1945 Damon Runyon, chronicler of New York’s demimonde, proclaimed the seersucker suit “a badge of affluence.” Formerly an informal material, seersucker underwent a journey denim would take years later, going from work uniform to cheap staple to high fashion.

A man demonstrating how drip-dry his seersucker suit is.
Photo: Bettmann/Getty

Still, it was strongly tied with Southern style and culture until postwar disaster struck. Widespread adoption of air conditioning removed the original purpose of seersucker and other summer-clothing material. Even New Orleanian courthouses began to fill with Northern style suits. Seersucker looks best in light shades, and darker suits convey seriousness and sobriety. The only place you saw seersucker was on eccentrics, Southern culture holdouts, and adaptations of The Great Gatsby.

That Trent Lott inaugurated “Seersucker Thursday” in the U.S Congress in 1994 to remind people how legislators dressed before 1950 speaks to how far seersucker had fallen into costume. It never goes out of the mass market, and recent interest in prep fashion brings it further to the mainstream, but seersucker remains a curio, something worn once a year, an exception to the norm.

Yet the things that made seersucker such a great fabric for pillowcases and uniforms and engineer’s caps and, yes, suits are the same things that make it overdue for a broad revival.

Seersucker is literally cool. Unlike the Airtex weave, Palm Beach worsted, nubby silks, or other summer clothing material, seersucker requires no special treatment or hand laundry. Its utilitarian virtues are even more self-evident in a future of longer and hotter summers. Let us put seersucker back into historical context and into our closets. Let’s restore it to proper democratic notions of style, affordability, and practicality. After all, even in 1936, Esquire asked of seersucker, “Why should the very cheap remain the province of the very rich?”