For the capital city of a superpower nation, Washington is sadly insular, non-cosmopolitan and aesthetically conservative. The suits are gray or navy, the ties are red or blue. Not since the pith-helmeted and moustachioed Teddy Roosevelt has a president looked like anything other than a businessman. On top of this, the summer heat can be stifling, adding to the soporific atmosphere of the city. Fortunately, sweat-drenched sartorial tedium has been resisted in Washington by a non-partisan movement which proudly waves as its flag the “Stripes-and-Stripes” of the great American fabric: seersucker.
I once nearly fainted in awe at a white-on-white-striped seersucker dinner jacket with cotton pique-faced shawl-collar lapels and turn-back cuffs
Although the British wore seersucker in the empire’s equatorial colonies, its popularity boomed in the heat of the American South. Over time it became a staple of the Southern gentleman’s wardrobe and the traditional uniform for going to the Kentucky Derby, getting tanked on Mint Juleps and losing your son’s college fund on a long-shot. There is some irony in the fabric being associated with the upper classes of the lower States – seersucker is an incredibly cheap fabric to make, especially when the cotton is local. And it was even cheaper when the ancestors of said gentlemen didn’t pay the people who were forced to pick it for them.
Seersucker was first worn by poor whites who could only afford to have their obligatory Sunday suits tailored out of cotton. It wasn’t until the early 20th Century, when Ivy-Leaguers wore it, that the candy-striped cotton cloth became the perfect symbol of that archetypically Southern combination of elegance and laziness. Wearing light shades of bright colors is a very stylish way of telling people that you don’t mind standing out, and that whatever you do for work doesn’t bring you into contact with dirt.
Much like Americans, seersucker is made in every conceivable colour combination. The traditional shades are gray-and-white and blue-and-white in eighth-inch vertical Bengal stripes, but varieties can be found in purple, red, green, orange, and any other hue imaginable in both stripes and gingham. I personally own two seersucker suits from Doyle Mueser Bespoke: a lime green-and-white two-piece and a pink-and-cream three-piece, which makes me look like a schmear of lox cream cheese. I’ve seen a black-and-gray-striped seersucker business suit, and I once nearly fainted in awe at a white-on-white-striped seersucker dinner jacket with cotton pique-faced shawl-collar lapels and turn-back cuffs.
Seersucker is by no means a new addition to the pantheon of summer fabrics. The word arrived in the English Language from the Hindi sirsakar (from the Persian shiroshakar) by way of Tamerlane’s 14th-century invasion. The original means “milk and sugar,” a reference to the alternating textures of the puckered stripes of cotton. Because the fabric is so light and crisp (holding a crease much better than plain linen), it’s perfect for summer suits, usually half-lined. One of my favorite things about owning a three-piece seersucker suit is the ostentatiously self-defeating adoption of a waistcoat in what is meant to be a very cool outfit.
Even the hallowed halls of the United States Senate occasionally see seersucker. Once a year, both lady and gentleman Senators celebrate “Seersucker Thursday,” a tradition started by Republican Senator Trent Lott. The event harks back to a time before air-conditioning, when the heat was so punishing that sweat-covered legislators, probably driven mad, did things like enact prohibition.
These days, the nation’s seersucker banner is held aloft by Eric Brewer’s Washington D.C. group Dandies and Quaintrelles, which holds an annual “Seersucker Social” every summer. This year, over 900 people gathered at Hillwood Mansion – the estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post Cereal fortune [see also Palm Beach article] – with bow ties, parasols, pipes, braces, pearls, white suede bucks, spectator shoes (or “co-respondents”), pink socks, straw boaters and Panama hats. Entertainment was provided by Harlem’s Dandy Wellington and the Made to Measure Band who performed beneath the house’s pristine white Corinthian-columned portico.
Children in seersucker bonnets, blowing soap bubbles, were pulled around in red wagons, couples were lying together tipsy on pastel picnic blankets, people danced, a man took wet-plate photographs of party-goers, their eyes itching to blink from the long exposures, and a Vaudevillian named Mark Jaster expertly played Summertime and Somewhere over the Rainbow on a handsaw with a violin bow. However, in Washington, even at such civilized events as the Seersucker Social, conversation can quickly devolve from one man admiring another’s bow tie to the discovery that they’re both diplomats at the State Department, followed by a blizzard of indecipherable acronyms. Suddenly, the gray-suited world beyond the hedges of the Hillwood Gardens seems that much closer. But somehow, the beauty of seersucker shines through all, and the fact that even the most loyal G-men look refined in their striped suits is a reminder of the fabric’s privileged position in American fashion.