By Dick Shipley
We call it “seersucker,” a totally westernized term for something that came from the other side of the world; yet, we made it totally American – specifically, southern. Translated, it means “milk and sugar.” Who down here doesn’t love milk, in one form or another, or sugar? So here is a little background on a fabric that became not only a style, but a way of life from a southern boy who has dedicated his professional life to clothing and has long been endeared to its many qualities. Still today, it is the quintessential suit of the south – and another reason to love it on this side of the Mason-Dixon line.
The etymology of it is Persian, as its original name was shiro-shakar, but was Anglophiled by the British over 300 years ago. Quickly, it became a fabric of choice in the particularly hot, humid British colonies such as India; but had no relative influence in the new world. Soon the south, with its emphasis on our game-changing, economic cornerstone of cotton, was producing this cool, textured textile for the working class. Enter the twentieth century and a New Orleans clothier named Joseph Haspel, who found a new use for seersucker as an alternative to the hot wool suits of the day, and it began an ascent in southern sartorial lexicon. Haspel exploited his creation by having men clad in seersucker suits jump into Lake Pontchartrain, only to exit with a suit that still looked proper – if not better than before their dousing. It was highly effective in popularizing the fabric among professionals seeking a cooler, appropriate alternative to the heavier mainstays of the day.
Still, it enjoyed only regional success and popularity – unacceptable to the proper business stiffs in the northern United States. Soon to follow though, a funny thing happened: then-Princeton University president – and future U.S. President – Woodrow Wilson, took a trip across the pond and upon seeing upper-class European academics and business magnates in England and France wear this wonderfully fashionable fabric, (no doubt in part due to the influence of cotton supplied by the south), he returned stateside as a Yankee advocate and trend-setter. Smitten with its lightweight quality and bengal-striped appearance, it was the rage among northeastern dandies and ivy league elitists. Seersucker then took off hotter than a mid-July day in Savannah!
There are many iterations of seersucker, but it remains pretty much the same today as it was a century ago. In its purist form, it is produced primarily of bi-warped, loosely woven cotton, thus giving it the texture and breathing quality we know and love. It is ideal to release stored heat and diffuse humidity; Lighter constructed and more colorful variations are an arid, fun look in shirts, too... Perhaps worn with a pair of chinos and a blazer.
It’s not inexpensive to weave, but it comes from an abundant fiber that was once the backbone of our regional economy, so it’s reasonably priced. And while it’s gone around the world for centuries, its roots are firmly held in the sunny south.
As we enjoy a clothing renaissance, seersucker is still synonymous with sartorial splendor, genteelness, and brashness, all at once. Sure it’s “preppy,” but what’s wrong with that? Didn’t those guys go on to become successful? All the while, it’s chic... Heck, even bow-ties are cool now! Politicians and lawyers alike celebrate it (okay, not a selling point!), even giving it a national day of recognition. I have personally kept at least two working seersucker suits constantly in my wardrobe for thirty years; and, in my humble opinion, no self-respecting southern gentleman should be void of one in his. However, there are rules of engagement: as a genuine rite of spring, it is only permissible to break out after the vernal equinox (first day of spring), and retired from the rotation after Labor Day. While a fashion icon amongst serious style mavens, seersucker is fun to wear because it’s, well, fun! A man can show style and whimsy, all the while being pragmatic and smart. The blue or gray with an alternating white/cream stripe is timeless and safe. For those bolder, venture onto the wild side with either pink or beige as the primary color. You’re making a statement, so liven it up! A bright orange/red necktie on a gray/cream stripe, or a salmon or pink bow-tie on a blue/white stripe seersucker perfectly completes the look. In any event, one of the beauties to the fabric is the latitude it lends the wearer: while I, a professional haberdasher and clothier, typically eschew “mixing and matching” of suit components, this is a practice you can take license to with seersucker, as its longevity is spared by its seasonality.
Whether you’re meeting a client or rolling large at a cocktail party or horse race, one of my favorite fashion plays is taking a seersucker jacket and coupling it with a different trouser (i.e., white linen or wool, blue chambray, etc.), to make even a fashion neophyte look like a fashion guru. Likewise, turnabout is fair-play: you can wear the cotton striped trouser with either a navy blazer, wool/linen solid sports-coat, or even a madras plaid - only to be done if you’re inveterate dresser. Given its uniquely southern lineage, you’ll look desirably bedraggled; as the more it’s worn, the more personality it has. And we certainly have personality down here!
In all, seersucker transcends a fabric or clothing: it’s a way of life. That's how we think down here – cultural icons becoming the definition of who we are and vice versa. It belongs to dixie because it embodies dixie. While the sight of it evokes terms like dapper, ebullient and erudite, there is one word that represents the essence of seersucker unlike any other: civility. More than a look, or any of the aforementioned ideals, seersucker and civility go together like football and Saturday. So, go ahead and invest in that seersucker suit or jacket, and wear it as proudly as you do your dialect. It’s in my top ten wardrobe musts for every son of the south. And if you see a dapper fellow walking about in the summertime wearing a double- breasted seersucker suit with a bow-tie, boater hat and a cigar, come up and say “hello.”