The best design offers innovative solutions to the relentless stream of everyday challenges, uniquely reflecting and interacting with their origins. Seersucker, the brightly colored cotton fabric associated with Southern Gentlemen, J. Crew catalogs and Easter egg hunts, is certainly no different. Both an iconic achievement in fashion design and functionality, seersucker’s ceaseless timelessness stands as one of America’s finest fabric achievements.
While different origin histories cite Muslim traders and former British colonies, for contemporary purposes, our attention is drawn to balmy New Orleans at the turn of the humid century, 1907 to be exact, and its master tailor Joseph Haspel. Realizing the lightweight fabric would serve the masses of workers sweating their way through work days mercilessly devoid of air conditioning, coupled with his marketing concept of ‘wash and wear,’ a new American classic was born. He is said to have christened his creation of alternating stripes of blue and white, the rough and the smooth, “seersucker” from the Persian words for “milk” and “sugar.”
Seersucker’s distinctive crinkly shape is achieved through a slack tension weave, resulting in a versatile fabric of bunched threads that not only looks great in a dashingly disheveled, devil-may-care way, but is lifted from the body, thusly allowing for said cooling air flow. Again harnessing its slack tension weave crinkle powers, no doting care is necessary; any ole washing maintains the look.
And about that look, mirroring the trajectory of countless trends in modern America, what started as a working class thing, soon began appearing on college campuses. Then, in the 1920s, the suits were adopted by well to do Northerners vacationing in the South. Its utilitarian functionality continued to catch on, particularly in the nearby regions of the sweltering South, where it continues to carry its heaviest associations with the so-called Southern Gentleman.
Even the U.S. Senate, historically known for its poor ventilation, on the second or third Thursday in June, holds a Seersucker Thursday, founded by Trent Lott, where caricatured images of those gentlemen brighten up the usually dourly dressed denizens of the capital.
Before the fashion forward Senate, the U.S. government recognized the potential of seersucker, decking out World War II nurses with matchy-matchy numbers, colored accordingly: brown and white for Army and gray and white for Navy nurses. Designed to take advantage of the fabric’s ruggedness in the field, its radical departure from stoic military tradition meant its longevity was for naught.
Seersucker not only reigns supreme in suits, shorts, skirts – even the curtains of homes utilize this fabric. That said, the weaving process of alternating tight and slack weaves is labor intensive and expensive and companies stand to make little profit, resulting in fewer companies producing true seersucker. Harsh chemical treatments replicate the crinkle affect, but there ain’t no crinkle like a real seersucker crinkle, so make sure you get the real deal.
And in the real deal department, our old friend Joseph Haspel remains in the business of tailoring fine men’s suits via his family’s commitment to his vision. After flying the seersucker flag for years, even outfitting Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, and winning over recent presidents with their fine suits, it’s inspiring to see a brand’s dedication persevere.