The changing seasons are typically accompanied by a major shift in a well-dressed man’s wardrobe. Muted, warm fabrics give way to airy, lighter fabrics in pastels and brighter colors. Unfortunately, the clothing industry doesn’t always shift fabrics as well as it shifts colors, so it’s up to the individual to look out for quality summer fabrics.
Dressing well in the summer can be tricky. While shorts and polos have their place, classic style generally demands that long-sleeve shirts and pants are still the staples of an elegant wardrobe, even in the heat. A quick overview of the dandies at the famously hot summer gathering of Pitti Uomo confirms that jackets, dress shirts, pants and leather shoes can be – and should be! – worn to great effect in the warmer season. Luckily, certain weaving and construction techniques can be employed to great effect to increase the comfort of wearing traditional garments in the summer.
In this guide, we will explore the different kinds of fabrics that are suited for summer and hot weather, some of which may surprise you, as well as key pieces to own in each category.
What to Look for in a Summer Fabric
It’s not quite enough to simply switch to famous summer fabrics such as linen and cotton since not all fibers and weaves wear the same. Being able to identify the weave and characteristics of a certain fabric seems to be a lost art these days, as most retailers are content to only identify a fabric by its composition. Unfortunately, that leaves out the quality of the fiber itself, the weave, the provenance of the material and how it was produced, all of which would help the consumer understand what the fabric is best suited for (and if it’s really worth the price!). Nothing is worse than buying a “summer suit” that ends up being just as heavy as a winter suit, despite all visual indications to the contrary. To avoid making the same mistake, look for the following characteristics in a fabric meant to be worn in the summer:
- An open weave is paramount. An open weave means that when held to the light, you can see the small gaps between the warp and the weft fibers. These little holes allow air to circulate through the fabric. Open weave fabrics are shockingly hard to find these days, and as a result, many men believe that hot weather and classic garments simply don’t go together.
- Weight is not always the best indication of seasonal appropriateness. Weight and the weave go hand in hand to effect the comfort of a given fabric. A lightweight, tightly woven fabric will feel more insulating than a heavier, open weave fabric, so don’t consider weight the primary indication of how well a fabric will wear during the summer.
- Choose lighter colors. Lighter colors reflect light and heat better than darker colors, which will help you stay cool in the summer.
- Natural materials are best. Even though man-made fibers are ubiquitous and useful for many different purposes, synthetic materials in fabrics rarely offer cooling properties unless they are specifically engineered for athletic wear. This makes these fabrics inherently inappropriate for any attire other than sportswear. Think of it this way: today’s interpretation of classic style is built on the progression of the last 100 years of menswear. In the first half of that time period, the template for the best-looking suits, dress shirts, pants, and shoes were all created with natural materials such as wool, cotton, and leather that was meant to last for years. The innovation in fabric has created better performing alternatives for athletic wear, but natural materials such as wool still perform and look the best for classic attire. Stick to natural materials wherever possible.
Cotton is a wildly versatile natural fiber that can be used to produce heavy, napped fabrics such as corduroy as well as fine, breathable fabrics like seersucker. It has been known to be used for the creation of fabric for at least 7,000 years. With absorbent and breathable properties, it is no wonder that nearly 75% of the men’s clothing that is produced in the world contains cotton. For hot weather use, consider the following types of cotton:
Seersucker is a summer favorite in the US, and for good reason. Seersucker is characterized by its pastel striped color pattern and a distinctively wavy finish, which is produced by weaving two different fibers together that shrink differently in a plain weave. Originally it was produced in India, where cotton was woven with silk to produce the wavy affect. Silk is rarely used today, and in its place many manufacturers use polyester. With some searching, you can find 100% cotton versions of the fabric, but we would also recommend that you compare various seersuckers to find one with the most open weave. For more detail, check out our comprehensive Seersucker Guide here.
Gabardine is a 3-or 4-harness twill weave, which appears to the eye as small diagonal ridges in the finished fabric. It was invented by Thomas Burberry, so not surprisingly it is the fabric of choice for trench coats. It is a tough-wearing, tightly woven fabric, so it makes excellent jackets, pants, spring outerwear and spring suits. As such, it is better suited for mild weather and places that have cooler summers, such as the UK, Canada, and Scandinavian countries.
You may think gauze is just for curtains, but it was once a favorite fabric for colonial uniforms in tropical regions. This featherweight, plain weave fabric is elastic and porous and makes for a great summer shirt material.
Even though ‘madras’ technically only refers to the pattern of this fabric, it is still a very good indication that it is well suited for hot weather. Madras originates from India, where the fabric was traditionally woven with a plain, loose weave in a brightly colored checked pattern. Heavier versions of madras are used for pants and jackets, while lighter versions are used for shirts as well as for trousers. For the modern man’s purposes, madras is great for summer jackets, pants, shorts, and accessories such as belts. Since Madras is defined more by its distinctive pattern than by an open weave, make sure to inspect any madras you purchase to see if the weave is open enough to be comfortable in the heat. For more details, check out our comprehensive Madras Guide here.
Poplin is another variation on the plain weave, but in this case, it is paired with mercerized cotton fibers. Mercerisation alters the chemical structure of the cotton fibers, which leads to a softer feel and a more lustrous appearance. The result is a very lightweight fabric that wrinkles easily, which is a distinctly summery look. It is generally used in shirts, but heavier versions can be used in summer suits and pants.
A Panama weave is a basketweave pattern in which multiple threads are interlaced to form a checkered pattern. The structure allows it to easily be used for loose and open weaves, so cotton Panama fabric is perfect for summer garments.
No doubt when you read the title of this article, you immediately thought about linen as the quintessential summer fabric. Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant, and it is famously woven in Ireland and Italy. With a cool touch and an open plain weave, linen feels wonderful on the skin in hot temperatures. The main disadvantage of linen is the wrinkle-prone nature of the material, which is due to the lack of elasticity in the fibers.
Linen can be woven into a plain weave or a twill weave, but the most famous linens from Italy and Ireland are a plain weave. Irish linen is most commonly used for men’s suits; it is woven more tightly and doesn’t crease as much. Italian linen, which is lighter and softer than it’s Irish relative, is also known to crease more. Nevertheless, creasing is a famous feature of linen and if you’re not a fan of the elegant wrinkle, it is probably not a good fabric choice for you.
You may be surprised to find wool here, but since it is the traditional choice for many classic men’s garments, varieties of warm-weather wool were developed to suit summer temperatures. Even though wool is famously warm, it will wear much cooler in an open weave fabric than a tightly woven synthetic fabric or cotton. Here are two great kinds of wool to look for.
Tropical & Fresco
As the name implies, Tropical is a variety of wool fabric that is ideally suited to warm and hot climates. It may seem contradictory that wool can be suited for the tropics, but if you hold this fabric up to the light, you should clearly see the light shining through the open plain weave. A twisted 2-ply yarn is employed to create a plain weave that is lightweight yet durable. It’s definitely not a soft feeling fabric, but that actually helps give it great structure and drape for suits, pants, and jackets.
Fresco, which we profiled here, is a variety of Tropical that uses 3-ply yarn, rendering it a little heavier. Huddersfield‘s brand Minnis is known for its fine array of fresco fabric, which can otherwise be difficult to find.
You’ll hear the term “worsted” often in the world of fine menswear, and it refers to fabric made from combed, rather than carded yarns. Combing yarns aligns the long wool fibers while discarding the short staple fibers, which results is a long-lasting, fine and smooth yarn with a somewhat glossy finish. For more information, read our guide to Worsted Wool Suitings here. For summer, a lightweight worsted is a great choice for a suit, though it isn’t as breathable as a tropical or a fresco wool fabric. The main disadvantage to using a lightweight worsted wool in a suit is that won’t drape nearly as well as a heavier fabric. In fact, many retailers offer lightweight worsteds all year round, when generally they are best suited to summer.
How to Find These Fabrics
As we said, since disseminating the weave of a fabric is not common knowledge, it can be difficult to walk into even a haberdasher and request a poplin shirt. Especially for summer, we recommend that you seek out made-to-measure or bespoke producers for shirts and suits. It’s rare to find open weave fabrics off the rack, but you are much more likely to find a good selection of the above fabrics in the fabric books of a custom shirt or suit maker. Many of these services start at as low as $30 for a shirt and $300 for a suit, so it’s worth a look, though higher end fabrics will add to the total price tag.
It’s a bit easier to find seersucker and pants in a variety of materials, so those items can be found more easily in menswear stores or online.
For more summer outfit and shopping inspiration, check out some of our other guides below.
Choosing the right summer fabrics can help you continue to look dapper even through the hottest season of the year. What sartorial strategies do you use to beat the heat?