Seersucker is a thin, puckered, all-cotton fabric, commonly striped or checkered, used to make clothing for spring and summer wear. The word came into English from Hindustani (Urdu and Hindi), which originates from the Persian words "shir o shekar", meaning "milk and sugar", probably from the resemblance of its smooth and rough stripes to the smooth texture of milk and the bumpy texture of sugar. Seersucker is woven in such a way that some threads bunch together, giving the fabric a wrinkled appearance in places. This feature causes the fabric to be mostly held away from the skin when worn, facilitating heat dissipation and air circulation. It also means that pressing is not necessary.
Common items of clothing made from seersucker include suits, shorts, shirts, and robes. The most common colors for it are white and blue; however, it is produced in a wide variety of colors, usually alternating colored stripes and puckered white stripes slightly wider than pin stripes.
During the British colonial period seersucker was a popular material in Britain's warm weather colonies. When Seersucker was first introduced in the United States it was used for a broad array of clothing items. For suits the material was considered a mainstay of the summer wardrobe of gentlemen, especially in the South, who favored the light fabric in the high heat and humidity of the summer, especially prior to the arrival of air conditioning.
The fabric was originally worn by the poor in the U.S. until undergraduate students in the 1920s, in an air of reverse snobbery, began to wear the fabric. Damon Runyon wrote that his new habit for wearing seersucker was "causing much confusion among my friends. They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue."
Seersucker is comfortable and easily washed, and was the choice for the summer service uniforms of the first female United States Marines. The decision was made by Captain Anne A. Lentz, one of the first female officers selected to run the Marine Corps Women's Reserve during the Second World War.
Seersucker is made by slack-tension weave. The threads are wound onto the two warp beams in groups of 10 to 16 for a narrow stripe. The crinkle stripe may have slightly larger yarns to enhance the crinkle. The stripes are always in the warp direction and ongrain. Today, seersucker is produced by a limited number of manufacturers. It is a low-profit, high-cost item because of its slow weaving speed. Seersuckers are made in plain colors, stripes, plaids, checks (also known as gingham) and prints. Seersucker is used in curtains and summer suiting, dresses, and sportswear.
Summer Cool of a Different Stripe
By DAVID COLMAN in The New York Times
Published: April 20, 2006
BLUE collar, white collar. Whichever a man wears, he sometimes secretly longs for the other: the humble realness of the blue, the entitled ease of the white. For years men's fashion has toyed with these yearnings, bringing aristocratic trappings (à la Ralph Lauren) to the masses and thrift-shop hipness (à la Marc Jacobs) to the elite.
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Mark Veltman for The New York Times; photographed at Lure Fishbar
3. Dries van Noten seersucker suit, $1,305, and tissue linen shirt, $225, both at Barneys New York; Marni thin knit navy tie, $125 at Jeffrey New York. More Photos »
Slide Show: Summer's Seersucker
So it is a bit of poetic justice that the old blue and white striped fabric called seersucker should be in style uptown and down, in town and out. After all, it has already lived both lives.
Widely considered patrician, seersucker was a 19th-century workingman's fabric, a cheap American cotton version of a luxurious Indian silk. In the 1920's stylish undergraduates, in a spirit of reverse snobbery, took up the thin puckered fabric for summer wear. That edge was still sharp in 1945, when Damon Runyon wrote that his new penchant for wearing seersucker was "causing much confusion among my friends."
"They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue," he wrote dryly.
Today, fittingly, seersucker garments are made by both Mr. Lauren, in a weathered marine-blue and white style, and Mr. Jacobs, in metropolitan tones of black, gray and brown. The fabric has been embraced by European designers — Jil Sander and Dries van Noten — but the look is also in favor with men who do not get their cues from the runways of Milan and Paris.
At the white-shoe retailer Maus & Hoffman in Palm Beach, Fla., seersucker suits have moved from a back-of-store standard to a center attraction on the cover of its spring catalog. At the old-school label Haspel sales of seersucker are up more than 500 percent in the last three years, said James Ammeen, the president of Neema Clothing, which holds the Haspel license.
Haspel has appealed to younger customers with more than a dozen colors, including green, pink and tan, and lighter jackets with only a cool half-lining. Mr. Ammeen noted that young men who buy seersucker jackets and pants to wear separately account for a good part of the rise.
"Seersucker is a bit dandyish and Tom Wolfe-ish, which is a fun way to dress in the city," said Christian Vesper, an executive at the Sundance Channel in Manhattan, who prefers to wear only a jacket or pants in the fabric. "I've never gone all seersucker. I don't like all anything."
Mr. Vesper first dabbled in seersucker some 25 years ago in Newport Beach, Calif. "I bought a seersucker coat for my eighth-grade graduation," he recalled with a chuckle. "I think I'd read about it in the "Preppy Handbook" and decided that was the look for me."
Once removed from its freshly pressed ideal (with a white shirt, rep tie and straw hat), seersucker is surprisingly versatile. Worn with blue jeans, white painter's pants or faded khakis, with an untucked cowboy shirt or that paragon of 21st-century elegance, the weathered AC/DC T-shirt, a smart seersucker jacket adds that often-lacking je ne sais quoi, suggesting, say, that you have a job.
A man already endowed with a patrician air, or a ruddy complexion, might do well to avoid the most traditional seersucker (in the one-eighth-inch-thick Bengal stripe, as it is known). You don't want to be mistaken for an escapee from a Eudora Welty novel. But there are more low-key fabrics, like the thinner pencil-stripe blue and white cotton that Club Monaco and Banana Republic have made into trousers, that say seersucker without the Southern accent.
Others can indulge away. William Thompson, 37, who works in financial services in Manhattan, is more than happy to.
"To me it's the same thing as a young white guy wearing urban clothes, said Mr. Thompson, who is black. "It's the same juxtaposition. It's wearing something that represents what I am not, that goes against everything I am."
Whatever it means, the present and the distant past attest that seersucker was never meant to be precious. It just goes to show you what happens when Ivy Leaguers, or fashion designers, get their mitts on something.
The US Senate holds a Seersucker Thursday in June, where the participants dress in traditionally Southern clothing.