G. Bruce Boyer examines the proliferation of the famously puckered and pin-striped fabric.
About the only thing that really need be said about seersucker is that for warm-weather wear it’s the perfect fabric: pre-wrinkled, lightweight and porous, soft of hand, acceptable of patterns and colours, and easily laundered. It’s what in the trade they call a natural performance fabric. And, oh yes, with just the right amount of insouciant swagger. The rest is commentary.
Some cloths are made for comfort and utility without much thought to urbanity, while others can be elegant yet lacking utility. Seersucker happens to be both. Though the source of this smooth-rough woven cotton fabric has been traced back to the early days of Indian civilization, it’s in modern history that we find tailored garments of seersucker popular first in the American South, where the cloth was widely used for working men’s garments such as coveralls. But the humidity and heat of New Orleans, Atlanta, Charleston, and smaller cities and towns south of the Mason-Dixon Line also promoted a degree of comfortable dishabille with striped seersucker suits for professional and business men. Think film portrayals of Southern lawyers like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. And I’d bet my kale that William Faulkner wore seersucker.
By the 1920s style-setting students at elite Eastern universities like Princeton started wearing sports jackets and suits of the puckered cotton, followed by adventurous snow birds who traveled to southern resorts when the temperature dipped in the North, discovered the pleasures of the fabric, and brought it home to New York City, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia to have suits made for un-air conditioned summers in the corporate concrete jungle. By the 1940s the seersucker suit was no longer a college fad or resort wear, but so established that the editors of the Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men’s Fashions refer to a remark made by the famous writer and dandy-about-town Damon Runyon that “a man wearing a seersucker suit with aplomb could cash a check anywhere in New York with no questions asked.”
We might note the pertinent word aplomb. Seersucker deserves, even commands a bit of attitude and self-confidence because it has all that built-in, don’t-give-a-damn nonchalance. It lets ‘em know you can take the heat in style.
These days seersucker suits can be found in a great variety of colours and patterns, none of which are, strictly speaking, aesthetically illegal. But the classic continues to remain the standard by which all casual summer suits are measured: alternating narrow stripes in white or cream and either blue, grey, or tan. Details and infrastructure are kept to a bare minimum, you don’t mess about with a classic. Button down shirts and silk knit or shantung ties are the unbeatable accompanying accoutrements. And please don’t forget to wear a white linen or cotton pocket square, just to confirm your sense of assurance to the more timid.