Classic seersucker fabric gets its day in the sun
Criminal defense attorney Matlock, played by Andy Griffith, wore the same signature light gray and white seersucker suit to endure the South's extreme heat on the 1980s TV show.
But this hot-weather fabric has evolved from that stereotype.
“It's completely changed,” says Matt Sebra, style editor at GQ.com. “The fabric itself is the same, and as effective as it was in the Matlock era of keeping guys cool when the weather's anything but.
“What makes these new versions different is how they fit and the variety of options available,” Sebra says. “When it comes to fit, the boxy silhouettes are gone, replaced with more modern, trimmer cuts. These slim fits definitely come in the classic blue and white ... but the range of color options is wider than ever.”
In 1909, Joseph Haspel Sr. founded the Haspel brand with the goal of creating clothes that could stand up to his native New Orleans heat. He knew the British used this strangely puckered cloth called seersucker in India. He thought it could translate well from a laborer's outfit to a hot-weather-ready suit.
“Seersucker is never an old-timey fabric nor is it futuristic,” says Haspel designer Jeff Halmos. “It's the definition of classic, something that will never go out of style, and also happens to be uniquely American, thanks to Joseph Haspel Sr., who invented the seersucker suit in 1909, when applied to tailored clothing.”
Brooks Brothers introduced seersucker in the early 1920s as a cool fabric that looked good even on the most humid of New York summer days, says Glen Hoffs, the company's men's fashion director. The fabric was embraced by customers and has been a perennial favorite ever since.
“It's a very simple fabric,” says Patrice George, assistant professor in textile development and marketing at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “The technology is in the weaving and creating the tension so it puckers. They can use elastic thread to create a pucker.”
The original seersucker suit was double-breasted with a peak lapel and a double pleated trouser. Today, Brooks Brothers offers many variations on seersucker — changing the make and model and details, the color and even the fiber. This summer there's a sportcoat in a silk seersucker woven in Italy.
“Seersucker has become the official fabric of summer,” Hoffs says. “This is largely because it is amazingly cool and really is virtually wrinkle-resistant because of the structure of the weave.”
Seersucker was originally made of mostly cotton, says Lisa Marie Bruno, fashion and costume designer and educator for Mustard Seed Productions from McKees Rocks. The name originated from the Persian words for “milk and honey,” probably because it was created in cream and tan stripes.
During World War II it was used for nurse and Navy uniforms. Bruno says she was given a two-piece suit from a wealthy relative and it made her feel like Katharine Hepburn.
“It made me feel rich, like I was about to embark on an adventure,” she says. “I like the way seersucker moves. I like how it allows the wearer to breathe and feel cool when wearing it.”
Seersucker is an interesting fabric, says Deirdre Clemente, author and assistant history professor specializing in 20th-century American culture at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She has a Ph.D. in history from Carnegie Mellon University and wrote “Dress Casual: How College Kids Refined American Style.”
“Seersucker feels nice against the skin, so it keeps a body cool,” Clemente says. “It's also fashionable. It has a strong connection with wealth and Southern people. It's a fabric you can really make your own and wear it the way you want. It doesn't have to be worn as a suit because that can looked dated. Don't add a fedora and two-toned shoes to a seersucker suit because that will look too costume-y.”
Haspel designer Sam Shipley says his personal taste is to always wear seersucker with a white shirt.
“Not only because the fabric tends to be a bit bolder than normal, but because the white or off-white ground in the seersucker fabric really pops off a white shirt,” Shipley says. “For shoes, I'd go with a suede oxford or slip-on loafer. Socks are optional. Oh, and remember guys, 99 percent of us have to get a suit tailored a little bit before wearing. Fit is key!”
Halmos says everyone knows the classic colors but Haspel customers often request green, red and even purple. The fabric is one you can have some fun with, Halmos says.
Don't think of seersucker as only having to be worn as a suit, Sebra says. Throw a tailored seersucker jacket on over a T-shirt and pair of slim jeans, or put the pants with a beat-up Western denim shirt and roll up the sleeves.
Seersucker's puckered texture lets air flow easily in and out, something you won't find in tighter weaves. Also, it's a fabric that doesn't require a lot of maintenance.
“Because cotton suits wrinkle easy, and our motto at GQ is to embrace the wrinkles, you don't have to worry about pressing as you might with a wool suit,” he says.
Meredith Paley, spokeswoman for Talbots, says seersucker is the perfect lightweight fabric for warm weather for both men and women. A seersucker blazer or shorts in unexpected colors is “classic with a twist.”
“Pair seersucker with other lightweight fabrics such as cotton or linen,” Paley says.
“Seersucker is a very traditional summer fabric,” says Gregg Andrews, Nordstrom fashion director. “It never goes out of style. You might see different colors or different widths (of the stripes) but it's still a timeless fabric. It has just been re-invented and is a classic American prep look.”
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7889 or firstname.lastname@example.org.