So I was at a recent art opening, sipping some cold white wine and talking with a gentleman wearing a pair of slacks festooned with big shrimp when I noticed the strangest sight: A man wearing a starched brown seersucker shirt.
When I asked where he purchased such a shirt, he said he thought Brooks Brothers, but I knew that just couldn’t be. The label, when we looked, said Banana Republic. This conferred upon it a sort of hipness, I suppose, but I had to wonder that if the point of seersucker is to keep you cool, why wear it in such a dark color?
Seersucker is a thin cotton fabric, commonly striped or checked and usually presented in a light or bright color paired with white. It’s one of summer’s ubiquitous fabrics, along with linen and madras.
Like madras, seersucker originated in India. The unique way it is woven keeps one yarn at a normal tension while the other yarn is held at a slack tension. When filler yarn is added in, it causes the slack yarn to scrunch up, giving the fabric its signature wrinkled texture. The effect is to hold hot air away from the body, thereby keeping you cool.
If you’re enamored of the word “seersucker” like I am, it might surprise you to learn that it actually comes from the Hindi, Urdu, and Persian words “shiroshakar,” meaning “milk and sugar” and referring to the smoothness of milk and the rougher texture of sugar.
The man most responsible for introducing milk and sugar into American men’s fashion was a New Orleans suit maker named Joseph Haspel. He began creating inexpensive blue and white striped seersucker suits in 1909. Over time, the suit took on a sense of panache, helped no doubt when Princeton university boys back in the 1920s started wearing them.
A student named Damon Runyon is credited with launching the seersucker craze at Princeton. Runyon went on to achieve some fame as a writer. Several of his stories were adapted into Broadway plays, including Guys and Dolls. He was quoted as saying about wearing seersucker that his peers couldn’t tell if he was broke or vogue.
Supposedly, Brooks Brothers began selling a seersucker suit as early as the 1930s. The fabric began to reach the mass markets when Joseph Haspel started promoting it at textile and clothing conventions in the 1940s. Though it has had its ups and downs in terms of popularity since the advent of air conditioning, seersucker remains a stylish statement.
A decorator friend whispered to me one evening in the Blue Moon that one of his signature looks was the black and white powder room – white porcelain sink, black toilet, with black and white seersucker padded walls. They love it in Virginia.
A certain Baltimore Avenue merchant told me he has been busy this summer stitching up all sorts of unique seersucker shirts and pants for slim hipped fabby boys.
A gentleman from a fine old Sussex County family confided to me that when he wears seersucker pajamas to bed, it makes him feel “all crazy,” to which I just nodded, unsure I wanted further clarification.
My favorite seersucker story, however, is the one where my some friends were having Friday lunch at Galatoire’s in New Orleans. The foursome was attired, naturally, in blue and white seersucker suits. Don’t worry. None of the suits were the same because there is great diversity among blue and white seersucker garments — width of the wale, shade of the blue, cut of the lapel.
It was a typical Friday crowd: ladies in hats, large groups of celebrants, diners roaming from table to table visiting with old friends or trying to make nice to new ones, and everyone sipping Sazeracs. To their immediate left, however, was a table of ladies who were clearly tourists. They were wearing nothing of interest and, worse, they were eating Chicken Clemenceau with green peas.
As the fellas sipped and gossiped, gossiped and sipped, the chatter got looser and louder. Finally, one of the ladies to the left felt emboldened and turned to the group sweetly and said, “Excuse me, but we couldn’t help but notice that all of you are wearing seersucker suits. We were just wondering if you all were in some sort of a club or something?” One of the gentlemen, who will not be named, simply replied: “Why, as a matter of fact, ma’am, we are C***suckers in Seersucker.” “Oh my, I see,” she said and turned back to her chicken and peas.
I’ve never worn a seersucker suit. It would be a tad too comical for someone my size. That said, I do own a half dozen seersucker shirts, a seersucker jacket, a pair of seersucker shorts, one seersucker bowtie, a pair of chartreuse seersucker tennis shoes. My collection is not limited to clothing. I’ve got two seersucker bedspreads and a set of seersucker placemats with matching seersucker napkins. I came very close once to purchasing two purple striped seersucker lampshades. The price, not the color, was just too extreme.
All of this brings me back around to that brown seersucker shirt. Seersucker should be about celebrating the dandy and creating a little ruckus. Lime green? Yes indeed. Hot pink? Hell yeah! Brown seersucker just seems too serious, a little prim even, and most certainly a waste of a good indulgence.
My advice to those who feel compelled to go brown in the summer is very simple. Either do it in linen or go get a tan. Better yet, order a Manhattan cocktail and get your brown on that way. Anything, I beg you, but please don’t sully the seersucker.