Seersucker Guide – The Fabric, The Suits & Its Origins
In the US, one of the most characteristic summer fabrics is definitely Seersucker. Used for slacks, jackets and suits, it not only comes in the original color of blue and white, but also in a range of other colors. Today, I want to share about this summer classic to make sure you know what to look for the next time you are in the market for a summer suit.
What Exactly Is Seersucker?
Today, seersucker is considered to be a puckered, striped, lightweight cotton fabric. The most widespread version is striped in blue and white, although there are many other color combinations.
One stripe is always white, while the partner stripe could be bright yellow, Granny Smith green, pink, etc. What makes seersucker special is its puckered texture. This look is achieved by pulling certain warp yarns tighter than others. This process is also known as slack-tension weave. As a consequence, the crinkling is permanent and other wrinkles are less visible. Also, it does not require any ironing even though the yarn was not treated to that end. Many claim that the crinkling supposedly facilitates air circulation, though I have never found anyone who could explain this theory to me in a convincing manner. So, if you have better sources, please leave a comment below.
While cotton is the no. 1 material used in seersucker production, it remains unclear what materials were originally used. It seems as if linen and blends of linen and cotton were also used for production. Personally, I think such a blend could make this fabric even more interesting due to the blending of the textures.
Traditionally, the stripes are rather slim, measuring approximately 2 -3mm ( 1/10″) wide; there were are also wider versions with stripes up to 5 mm (1/5″) thickness. Both are absolutely fine, though the latter one will look bolder, while the thinner stripe resembles the look of a solid color from a distance.
Like with so many other garments or specific clothing items, it is difficult to pinpoint the birth of the seersucker fabric to a certain date.
Originally, seersucker fabric was rooted in India. Back when the country was ruled by the Mughal, Persian was the official language at court. Consequently, Persian was integrated into the local languages and then shaped both the Urdu and Hindi languages. The term seersucker derives from these languages, referring to the dual tonality of the colors. In fact, “sheer” means “milk” and “shukkar” means “lesser refined brown cane sugar.” Over time, the word evolved into “seersucker”, and it was first imported to Europe in the 18th century.
In the USA, the fabric started to become popular at turn of the century For example, politician John Garner of Texas supposedly wore seersucker suits at that time. Jospeh Guerney Cannon broke with protocol when he appeared in front of President Roosevelt in 1903 in a seersucker suit.
In the late 19th century, it was common for visitors to address the President of the United States in a black frock coat. However, during a hot summer day, Cannon decided to wear a seersucker suit. When asked what caused him to break the rules of dress code, he supposedly exclaimed, “the weather was damn hot!”
Haspel & Seersucker
In the states, seersucker was first mass-produced in New Orleans by Joseph Haspel and his brother. The Haspel company is still one of the leading producers of seersucker garments today. Although the Haspel brothers started their business in 1909 with work wear, they quickly adopted the production of seersucker in the US when they decided to offer a suit specifically designed for blazing summer heat they were accustomed to living in.
Poor Man’s Suit & A Badge of Affluence
Despite such prominent proponents such as Cannon, the seersucker suit was long considered to be a poor man’s suit. Starting in the late 1930′s, smart Princeton students and Hollywood actors were spotted in seersucker suits and LIFE magazine deemed it acceptable to wear seersucker in the northern part of the US. Subsequently, it was sometimes seen in posh resorts in California and the Bahamas, which certainly helped to promote its now debonair pedigree.
During WWII, the Duke of Windsor was ordered to the Bahamas, where he would not be the target of kidnapping amidst the conflict, and the famous clotheshorse learned to appreciate the seersucker suit. Subsequently, it did not take long until the association of seersucker poverty was transformed into panache and elegance. Writers would proudly wear it in beach settings and dapper men had discovered their new go-to summer suit. The columnist Damon Runyon even attested that wearing seersucker was “a badge of affluence”.
In the 1950′s and 1960′s, seersucker was probably at the height of its popularity in the Southern US, although it had not caught on as quickly in the northern parts of the country.
A number of famous people helped to retain the seersucker suit’s position in the attention of the public. For example, in the mid 1950′s, Miles Davis released his first 12″ LP and on the cover, he posed in a seersucker jacket with a cap. In 1962, Gregory Peck wore a seersucker suit in the famous movie To Kill a Mockingbird.
However, with the introduction of air conditioning to office buildings and homes, the seersucker suit lost its appeal even in the Southern parts of the US. Even the introduction of lighter synthetic fibers could not staunch the decline.
Nevertheless, outside the US the seersucker suit is often considered to be quintessentially American. Ironically, it is not seen on the streets very often anymore and if so, one easily becomes the center of attention. Today, there are only few events left that promote the seersucker tradition. The St. Jude Classic golf tournament has a Seersucker Sunday (where Brooks Brothers provides the winner of the tournament with a seersucker jacket) or the small group from the US Congress which celebrates the annual Seersucker Thursday. In the late 1996, Senator Trent Lott from Mississippi picked a hot day in June and encouraged his peers to wear seersucker in order to bring some Southern flair to Congress. Ever since, a number of senators – male and female – participated in this young tradition until June 20, 2012. One day before the Seersucker Thursday 2012, the Senate cloakroom’s staff notified members that the custom was being discontinued because Lott’s former colleagues were convinced it would be politically unwise to be seen “doing something frivolous” while there were so many conflicts over major issues. Outside of such events, you will hardly ever see a politician in the US wearing a seersucker suit.
Apart from that, seersucker suits are sometimes seen at garden parties and weddings in the summer, especially in the south, but it would be wrong to claim that many Americans wear seersucker suits anymore.
How to Buy Seersucker
First of all, you should make sure that you acquire a real seersucker fabric with an irregular warp. You can usually distinguish the real deal from the chemical fake by the degree and characteristic of the puckering in the fabric.
Most suits today are single breasted with either two or three buttons; they usually come without a vest. This makes perfect sense because you want to wear as little fabric as possible during summer.
While blue and white are certainly the most classic colors (they probably represent 90% of the market share), there are various other colors including pink, lime green, yellow or beige that make for interesting alternatives. Of course, you will draw even more attention if you go with bright colors; some eccentrics will even go so far as to wear a double breasted seersucker suit with a matching seersucker vest.
Personally, I prefer to wear my seersucker pants with different jackets because these ensembles are less flashy but nevertheless distinctly summery and unique.
In terms of accessories for seersucker, I find white summer shirts to be the best companion. Paired with a colorful mogador or madras necktie or bow tie and a pocket square, one definitely looks the part. Solid pink, red or navy ties may also look good, just like polka dots or even club ties. Just make sure not to overdo it!
With regards to shoes, I find that brown or tan shoes are an excellent option. Alternatively, white shoes or brown white/ off white spectators are possible though I think they look better with just a seersucker jacket rather than a suit, but as always, each to his own.
Panama hats make for a stylish companion, but sunglasses with brown frames will do fine as well.
Now, good luck finding your personal seersucker suit and let me know what you get in the comments or, better yet, send me a picture!