southern cool

Seersucker suit and a straw hat

It’s so damn hot, I can’t stand it. My fine seersucker suit is all soaking wet. —The Devil, Don Henley’s “The Garden of Allah.”

Back on January 23 at 11:00 a.m. snowflakes fluttered from a cold, sunny sky. The startling blend of blue and white brought a Southern legend to mind. How nice it’d be to don a puckered, blue-and-white cotton suit and sashay out into a steaming Dog Day afternoon. Times were a Southern gentleman worth his salt would not be without a seersucker suit. Drifts of dust pile up from years worn and gone and the Grim Reaper’s relentless harvest takes its toll. Fewer people than ever recall the days before air conditioning when a torrid day demanded seersucker.

Today’s as good a time as any to read about a Southern legend, yesteryears’ crumpled, rumpled seersucker suits. It didn’t need dry-cleaning. Just toss it into the washer. No pressing either. Long live this cool cloth.

I come here to sing seersuckers’ praise not bury it, but reader beware. Seersucker has its detractors. “No more dangerous fabric has ever been woven, washed, and worn in the history of mankind than seersucker.” So wrote Zack Hickman in “A Seersucker Manifesto.” Hickman advises would-be wearers of this puckered fabric to know exactly how to wear it. “One slight misstep and a fellow might find himself being mistaken as the fifth man in a barbershop quartet, handed a red, white, and blue boater, and hauled off against his will to the International Barbershop Quartet Convention in Kansas City, Missouri.”

Never cared for barbershop quartets but I have pleasant memories of seersucker. My earliest recollection of seersucker, set me straight if I’m wrong, Lincolnites, is of Mr. Hughes Willingham. I can still see him in the dime store wearing a seersucker jacket. It’s a summer memory of, that wonderful store that smelled of hot dogs and oiled wood floors.

Mom spoke of seersucker often, though I can’t recall her and Dad ever wearing it. I want to say they outfitted me in a seersucker jacket one summer. I may be daydreaming, however. White bucks for sure I wore. Seersucker? Not so sure but I plan to remedy that.

How did this fabric from British India ascend to Southern renown? Simple. It’s comfy on blazing summer days and comfy too in a steamy, coal-fired train cab, something locomotive engineers appreciated. The secret, we’ll call it, is “air-o-dynamics.” The puckered fabric makes less contact with the skin than fabrics that lay flat against the flesh. On a blistering July afternoon a starched, white oxford shirt clings to the skin. Air gets under seersucker and the heat dissipates.

I’ve written before about the best teacher who ever walked into a classroom. In the spring of 1968 at the University of Georgia James Kilgo, in a blue-and-white seersucker suit, read from William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” that classic story in Go Down Moses. Classic clothing for a classic memory.

Seersucker reigns as a celebrity of sorts and some celebrities were suckers for this wondrous fabric. Remember Andy Griffith and his seersucker suits with suspenders on “Matlock?” Barney Fife would deck himself out in a seersucker suit, topped off with a straw hat and a bow tie when on the town. It’s vogue, this fabric that was once known as “the working man’s suit” because of its affordability.

If you think this fabric appeals to artists you’re right. Henley wasn’t the only lyricist to weave seersucker into a song. The Rolling Stones’ “West Coast Promo Man” mentions a seersucker suit. The Tom Petty song “Down South” mentions seersucker and white linens. The Who wrote “My jacket’s gonna be cut and slim and checked. Maybe a touch of seersucker, with an open neck.”

Despite its rock-and-roll fame, seersucker remains Southern to the core. My fellow UGA grad and author, the late Ken Burger, wrote this about it. “Quite honestly, there’s just something about wearing seersucker that makes you feel like you’re starring in a James Dickey novel and talking to Mark Twain while having a drink with William Faulkner.”

Maybe you should wear seersucker, too. June 11 is national seersucker day. That’s number thirteen of the 101 days it’s proper to wear seersucker. You see seersucker should only be worn from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Ladies, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, and Suzy Parker wore this lightweight cool fashion and so can you. My friend, A Transplanted Georgia Peach, serves up insight about the fashion of the South. “I have always had an affinity for seersucker. I have a few seersucker dress suits from Brooks Brothers.” She adds, “I have blue and white seersucker as well as tan and white, pink and white, etc. I love it all. Once I moved to Charleston, I realized it was a mandatory summer wardrobe item for surviving the oppressive heat of a blistering August day. About ten years ago, I was in Saratoga Springs, New York during ‘the season’ I realized it wasn’t just a Southern thing. There was a sea of seersucker in the grandstands of the racetrack. And it rarely peaks in the 80s in upstate New York in the summer. Most places do not even have AC! That just goes to show you that people who have an ounce of decorum know a good thing when they see it … unless they are bland Midwesterners who attempt to ban a fashion institution.”

She knows of what she speaks. A few years back a legislator in Missouri proposed a ban on wearing seersucker for anyone over eight years of age. Missouri whatever. Seersucker got its Southern genesis from the hot, humid summers of New Orleans. Garden & Gun magazine covered the history of this most Southern fabric. “Joseph Haspel Sr. was a tailor in New Orleans when he first discovered seersucker fabric. At the time, the lightweight textile was popular in India because it kept people cool in the hot weather. The South, he figured, was no different. Over the next twenty years, seersucker suits took off in the South and in the Ivy Leagues, making Haspel synonymous with a new kind of sophisticated summer style. Every former president since Coolidge has worn Haspel, but its biggest moment was no doubt on the back of Gregory Peck in his role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It’s hard for me to give the Middle East any credit for anything good. Bombs and decapitations long ago soured me on this region, but wouldn’t you know it. Seersucker takes its name from the Persian compound word shir-o-shakar, which literally means milk and sugar. Consensus holds that the fabric’s smooth and rough stripes bring to mind the milk and sugar imagery.

How is it 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 stripes are always in the warp direction and ongrain, (strange weaving term). Today, a few manufacturers produce seersucker, a low-profit, high-cost fabric due to its slow weaving speed.

I can’t recall the last time I wore seersucker, a boy back in Georgia, I guess. First chance I get, come warmer weather, I’ll make a quest for a seersucker jacket, blue and white, of course. I’m pretty sure it won’t be cheap unless I snag it online. Either way, come June 11 it will be right sporty.

Do you want some seersucker clothing? Try eBay where A Transplanted Peach says you can find great bargains. Or you can repeat this sentence 10 times. “She saw six suckers for seersucker selling seashells by the seashore.” Pull that off without a hitch and the devil will pop out of the ground and give you his seersucker suit. There ain’t a fabric on Earth that can keep that dude cool.

Image: photo by the author, Tom Poloand

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at Email me at [email protected]