Seersucker: Sartorial Athleisure

Once again, as with the Solaro fabric we wrote about earlier, we have to thank British colonialists for bringing us seersucker, one of the most  appreciated summer suiting cloths.  The British adopted the use of this traditional fabric from India as a summer option for their clothes and textiles . “Seersucker” is the combination of the Persian words shir and shekar – which mean milk and sugar. The distinctive texture of seersucker is probably at the origin of its name, since it presents both smooth stripes (like milk) and rugged ones (like sugar).

Seersucker is weaved in a way that causes the cloth to “pucker”. The cloth is woven on twin-beam looms that run at different speeds; the warp yarns are pulled to different degrees of tightness, causing the fabric to crinkle, in a process known as a slack-tension weave. The bumpy surface and the traditional white and pale blue pinstripes are intrinsic peculiarities of seersucker. Seersucker’s unique texture helped earn it a reputation as a breathable fabric. Because the surface doesn’t lay flat, it is less likely to stick to the body even in the presence of sweat, allowing the cloth to dry out quickly as air circulates through it more easily.

It is because of this characteristic of the cloth that seersucker originally made its appearance in the American apparel industry in the form of garments destined for blue-collar workers who needed a sturdy yet breathable fabric for their summer uniforms. Naturally, these were not suits, but rather overalls, work jackets, and headwear with the goal of keeping the worker cool even in presence of strong sources of heat, including furnaces.

We owe the surge in popularity of seersucker in classic menswear to New Orleans’ clothier Joseph Haspel, who started making men’s suits in seersucker fabric in 1909 as an alternative to traditional suits during the scorching, humid summers in the South. Haspel actively marketed his creation as comfortable and convenient –  the fabric not only allowed the wearer to stay cooler.  It also did not requiring ironing. To prove the value of his product, he swam in the ocean in his seersucker suit, hung it up in the bathroom, and wore it later the same day to a dinner party, amazing the attendants with tales of the cloth’s versatile properties.

Haspel’s notion – using a “poor man” fabric to create garments for the upper class – was a success; many professionals and politicians from the South started wearing seersucker suits.

Up north, in the 1920s, American undergraduate students started wearing seersucker for a very different reason. Little did the care about the versatility of the fabric, or its peculiar look: they adopted it in an attempt to elevate apparel that traditionally was linked to the lower class. Unlike genteel Southerners, preppy students favored seersucker for only one garment – usually a sport coat to wear with chinos, and never really adopted the full seersucker suit look.

By mid twentieth century, half of the United States was wearing seersucker during the summer months: workers on railroads in the South, students at Princeton, lawyers, writers, and even politicians adopted it, glad to be spared the embarrassment of either being soaked in sweat or be spotted on duty without a suit.

So what happened? Why is seersucker no longer an obvious choice for people throughout the nation to escape the heat and find ease in a cool, comfortable, and low-maintenance fabric?

Progress gives and progress takes.

When air conditioning started blasting in America’s offices and stores, white-collars ceased suffering in humid environments; they no longer needed clothes to protect them from heat and humidity. Seersucker slowly but inexorably fell out of favor, as people decided that they could wear a regular three-season suit at work even during the dog days of summer.

Today, seersucker has been relegated to a purely stylistic choice, and, in a surprising shift of events, the prerogative of people who had enough disposable income to invest in an unnecessary garment. The cheap, blue-collar favorite seersucker had become a luxury as soon as people stopped seeing it as a need. After all, that is true luxury: the use of resources on unnecessary goods and experiences.

As its popularity started fading, seersucker remained the choice of extravagant Americans who used it to express their social status, as the Rolling Stones explain in the lyrics of Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man:

Yeah, I’m sharp

I’m really, really sharp

I sure do earn my pay

Sitting on the beach every day, yeah

I’m real real sharp, yes I am

I got a Corvette and a seersucker suit

In recent years, seersucker has made a comeback on the shelves of menswear stores as an option for those who are brave enough to experiment with vintage-inspired apparel and accessories. 1920s clothes are experiencing a second life, partly due to Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby and its costumes; large lapels and Southern inspired garments and prints re-entered the market, this time to be stored in middle class American closets and available in relatively affordable ready-to-wear options.

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott introduced  Seersucker Thursday in the 90s – usually the second or third Thursday of June – in which Senators are invited to show up in Congress wearing seersucker to remember the days pre-AC when the cloth was a staple in Washington. The tradition is still going strong.

Still, seersucker remains an extravagant choice, and it is certainly not a staple in a man’s wardrobe, but rather a micro-trend that only a niche embraced.

Most of you probably don’t own a seersucker suit – which makes quite of a statement especially when worn on a daily basis – but there’s a good chance that you might have some garment made of seersucker in your closet. Perhaps it’s a sports coat, or maybe a shirt. Like most things that fall out of fashion, we are slowly reintroduced to them through bits and pieces when the fashion industry tries to reinvent itself season after season, tapping into old trends and giving them a twist.

In a day and age where comfort seems to be taking over the fashion industry (think of athleisure and athluxury), one would expect seersucker rising to popularity once again, at least amongst those who appreciate classic menswear.

Think about it: seersucker provides a great option for those who don’t want to give up their sartorial needs even during the hottest days of the year, and due to its crinkled appearance, it makes for a great travel companion. You can literally don a seersucker jacket from your luggage, as it will be just as good as when you first wore it. And the same goes for seersucker pants; if you ever cursed your trousers after sitting for a long period of time because of unaesthetic wrinkles running throughout the fabric, you might be a good candidate to appreciate a seersucker suit.

I wouldn’t be surprised if seersucker made its way back in our closets, this time as a polished form of athleisure – to fit the needs of those who don’t want to give up their sartorial needs but are willing to embrace comfort and convenience.

Feel free to comment down below with your thoughts on the matter.

Here are a few examples of forumites wearing seersucker this summer. If you’re curious about seersucker, I highly recommend browsing the Southern Trad thread on the forum, where gentlemen from the South (but really, from anywhere in the world) publish photos of themselves in amazing seersucker garments during the summer months. You’ll surely find more inspiration and a place to ask questions about this fascinating cloth.

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Arianna Reggio

Arianna is an Italian trapped in Southern California, and she's still trying to cope with the fact she's living in a country where they put pineapples on pizza. She is into both Style AND Fashion, but she hardly ever writes about it because all her free time is spent between yoga, rock concerts, and Victorian poetry.

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9 thoughts on “Seersucker: Sartorial Athleisure

  1. Is A/C really the death to suit in summer, I would say casual wear probably did more. I mean in all honest doesn’t matter the fabric, suit in hot summer is just uncomfortable anyway…

    • Air conditioning came before casualwear, but today the latter is the cause of the death of summer suits.
      I’m really hoping completely unconstructed jackets like this will become more popular in the future, as they’re an excellent option to look sharp when the weather is not cooperating.

  2. Love seersucker. I don’t have any right now, but it’s on my list to purchase. If one goes out on a hot summer day to walk down the street to the cafe or favorite watering hole, it’s still great.

    BTW, Arianna. I agree with you. Pineapple on pizza. NEVER! However I don’t feel myself “trapped” in Southern California.

    • If you like seersucker and you hate pineapple on pizza then we can be friends 😉

  3. I own a seersucker suit, MTO in a blue on blue pattern that I’m quite fond of. I have two piar of pants for the suit and often wear that pants worth the odd shirt or polo for more casual events.
    And the jacket can be worn with other pants throughout the Summer.
    I also own three custom shirts in seersucker. The material is a life saver in our hot and humid NYC Summers. NYC is a pedestrian and public transport city, so AC in the office doesn’t save you from a great deal of unpleasantness.
    Very nice article, well researched and written.

    • Hi Jeff,

      Thank you for your kind words!I’m based in SoCal, where public transport remains utopic, but I own a few dresses in seersucker and I can confirm it’s a blessing when it’s hot and humid outside. Glad to hear you make the most of it by wearing it spezzato, it’s the smartest way to wear a suit!

  4. I just learned a new word! It’s my first time encountering (spezzato). PS, It think seersucker would be more readily adopted if more fabric colors and patterns are produced. I would love plaid seersucker!

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