Friday, March 20, 2009

Perhaps no other garment helps a man beat the heat than a Seersucker Suit. But it was not always credited with such redeeming attributes...


When dog days draw near, perhaps no other garment helps a man stylishly beat the heat better than a seersucker suit. Cool and comfortable, easy to care for, relatively affordable and--wrinkles be damned, it epitomizes everything the best warm weather clothing should be. Yet, though it may come as a surprise, the seersucker suit was not always credited with such redeeming attributes. On the contrary, its history has largely been a tale of struggle for survival.

From the hindi word "shirushaker" meaning puckered or blistered, seersucker first became popular when it was used for the silk pajamas and night shirts worn by the British Raj in India. Like much of the cloth still made in India today, seersucker owes its crinkly texture to the various slackening processes that the threads undergo in weaving. Indian weavers referred to these cloths as homespun and much pride went into the handwork.

The cotton seersucker suit as we know it, first surfaced in New Orleans as long ago as the turn of the century, quickly becoming the suit of choice for southern gentlemen, many of whom were wealthy plantation owners. Unopposed to the wrinkles, these men were no doubt attracted to the lighter weight of a garment made of seersucker, along with the meager $10 price tag manufacturers placed on a suit.

Among northerners however, save for a smattering of style-conscious and trendy Princetonians who wore seersucker suits on and off campus throughout the Twenties and Thirties, the garment given to wrinkling was mostly regarded with snobbish disdain. New Yorkers particularly were unwilling to sacrifice a crisp crease for comfort. Above the Mason Dixon line, seersucker was shrugged off as a poor man's fabric better left to the South.

As the Forties unfolded, the seersucker suit, oddly enough, started to win favor along the northeastern seaboard, even becoming somewhat of a status symbol in such stalwart business cities as Washington DC and New York. Damon Runyon once even remarked during this period that a man wearing a seersucker suit with aplomb could cash a check anywhere in New York with no questions asked. The rationale: Any man sufficiently self-confident to wear one must be affluent, since a poor man would never allow his economic status to be so apparent. But seersucker suits were far from being universally accepted in northern locales, despite Runyon's literary appreciation.

During the early Fifties, an industrious New Orleans clothier named Joseph Haspel devoted his energies to developing a seersucker suit that could be washed, then worn, without a need for pressing. Haspel's quest for an ever present crease was finally realized when he blended polyester and cotton and created a seersucker cloth that retained its shape even after rigorous machine washings. An unabashed showman by nature, Haspel demonstrated his miracle fabric breakthrough at a convention of tailored clothing buyers and manufacturers in Florida. Staging a press conference on a nearby beach, Haspel, donning one of his new blended fiber seersucker suits, left the crowd and walked directly into the ocean up to his neck. Later that evening, he wore the same exact suit to the convention and even the most seasoned cynics were silenced. Wrinkle resistant seersucker lived. And Haspel would forever be known as the father of the washable seersucker suit.

As the decade progressed, Hollywood lent its hand to promoting seersucker as a stylish suiting fabric. Who could forget the daring-do of James Cagney in "A Lion in the Streets" or the cool nonchalance of Tom Ewell in "The Seven Year Itch." Then again, Gregory Peck was at his forthright best in "To Kill a Mockingbird" as he entered the courtroom stylishly clad in a seersucker suit replete with wrinkles. Eventually, according to Oscar E. Schoeffler and William Gale in "Esquire's Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Men's Fashions," "no reasonable man could afford to overlook seersucker."

Gregory Peck wore his wrinkled seersucker suit to court in "To Kill A Mockingbird"

Since its early days as strictly a southern garment, the seersucker suit has traveled a stormy path to acceptance. Perhaps the real turning point in its achieving popular status came in 1964, when in the movie "Charade," Cary Grant, sporting Haspel's drip-dry version, stepped into a running shower to escape the pursuit of George Kennedy. Then again, its popularity could stem from the fact that every American president over the last 50 years has worn one: Haspel's company has routinely sent a seersucker suit to the White House up until Richard Nixon took office.

Once again, the seersucker suit is fashionable for summer, even along the buttoned up thoroughfares of Wall Street. The newest look in seersucker is the high roll, three-button, single breasted model, but double breasted, peaked lapel versions are still very much in evidence, with either four or six button fronts--the same models seen on southern men since the Twenties and Thirties. While blue and white remains the most classic color combination for seersucker, many designers today offer it in unusual shades that look of another era--pale gray, ecru and pale rose come immediately to mind.

The contemporary seersucker suit always looks appropriate with a simple bow tie and would not be complete without a jaunty pocket square of linen or cotton peeking out from the breast pocket. As for wrinkles, it is worth remembering that fashion has been most influenced by those men who dared to defy convention, even though, as Cecil Beaton has written, "Ridicule or scorn often rewards those who turn off the modern highway of conservatism." Just so.

2 comments:

  1. I've looked half-heartedly for an off-the-rack seersucker suit in Brisbane, Australia for quite a while now. They are practically unknown, which is ridiculous as it's "hot" here for 9 months of the year. Menswear stores actually sell winter-weight suits when it is 24C/72F in "winter". Dare I order a Haspel on-line?

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  2. If it's a last resort I would go ahead and order the suit on-line but err on the large size to accommodate alterations. It's easier for a tailor to take it in then let it out and usually results in a better fitting garment. But remember, it's seersucker and it's perfectly fine to look a little wrinkled and worn in.

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