Down South: A Southern Legend, Seersucker
“It’s so damn hot I can’t stand it. My fine seersucker suit is all soaking wet.” Texan Don Henley worked that seersucker reference into his song, “The Garden of Allah.”
As I write, snowflakes tumble from a sunny sky. That surprising combination of blue and white brings to mind a Southern legend. How nice it’d be to don a seersucker suit of thin, puckered, blue-and-white cotton and sashay out into a dog day afternoon.
Fewer people than ever can recall the days prior to the era of air conditioning when any Southern gentleman worth his salt would not be caught without a seersucker suit. A torrid day demanded seersucker and best of all it didn’t need dry-cleaning. Just toss it into the washer.
My earliest memory of seersucker, correct me if I am wrong, Lincolnites, is of the gentleman who ran the dime store of my youth. I can still see him wearing seersucker pants in the dime store he was famous for.
I’ve written before about the best teacher who ever walked into a classroom, Darlington’s Jim Kilgo. In the spring of 1968 at the University of Georgia as dogwood bracts blew about James Kilgo, in a blue-and-white seersucker suit, read from William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” that classic story in Go Down Moses.
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 once made “the working man’s suit” because of its affordability. (And it didn’t need to be pressed.)
Is seersucker Southern to the core? You be it is. The late Ken Burger had this to say 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.”
June 11 is national seersucker day. That’s the thirteenth day of the 101 days it’s proper to wear seersucker. You see seersucker should only be worn from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Ladies, you, too, can enjoy this day and lightweight cool fashion. Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, and Suzy Parker wore it and so can you. My friend, a transplanted Georgia Peach, said, “Seersucker is my fave. I have a few seersucker dress suits from Brooks Brothers.” She continued … “I have always had an affinity for seersucker. Once I moved to Charleston, I realized it was a mandatory summer wardrobe item for surviving the oppressive heat of a blistering August day.” She adds, “I have blue and white seersucker as well as tan and white, pink and white, etc. I love it all.”
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.”
Seersucker takes its name from the Persian words shir-o-shakar, which literally means milk and sugar. This was probably figuratively used as the fabric is marked by both smooth and rough stripes; thus allowing the fabric to be held away from the skin, creating better air circulation.
From what I’ve learned, 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 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.
Come June 11 I’ll move my seersuckers suits, pants, and jackets into my “summer” closet. I’ll get out my bow ties too … the real kind you tie by hand. The time to dress sporty will be at hand. Time to enjoy the beach, summer reads, and our good old sunny weather.
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. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers 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, “Georgialina.” Find more columns at www.tompoland.net.