If you live in the South and your social calendar for the warmer months includes weddings, bridal showers, horse races, graduations, and any other dressy daytime affairs, chances are there will be one confirmed guest in attendance: seersucker.
Made from a fabric that first originated as a tan-and-white print in 1600s India, called shirushakar after the Persian word meaning “milk and sugar,” seersucker was a hit the moment it made its way onto American soil in the 1700s. With zero air conditioning and a day-to-day dress code that hadn’t yet met athleisure and tank tops, seersucker’s lightweight, naturally puckered nature became a breathable respite from the heavier wool and cotton fabrics that folks had previously had to tolerate.
But it wasn’t until two centuries later that seersucker met its iconic incarnation in the seersucker suit. That’s when Haspel, a New Orleans menswear tradition, came into play. Will Swillie, Executive Vice President at Haspel, explains that while Haspel didn’t create seersucker, they do hold the honor of originating the seersucker suit.
As with all of the best fashion tales, this trend has a great backstory. Haspel first utilized seersucker in manufacturing workwear for railroad and prison uniforms, a testing ground for the pivotal discovery that followed.
Will recounts that one day, in the sweltering summer heat of 1946, Joseph Haspel, Sr. walked straight into the Atlantic Ocean wearing his legendary wash-and-wear seersucker suit. “To prove its worth, he hung it to drip dry and wore it again that night to a cocktail party,” says Will.
Thanks to seersucker’s quick-drying, cooling characteristics and his cleverly grand gesture, Mr. Haspel demonstrated that a seersucker suit was perfect for professional men in New Orleans and across the South. No longer were they stuck in damp workwear. They could wear their seersucker suits even on the hottest, most humid August days, sweat through them on the way to the office, and dry off by the time they needed to look presentable.
A classic was born.
Today, we often see seersucker suits in their instantly recognizable stripe. The fabric has expanded beyond men’s suits into warm weather staples for women and children as well — including suits, dresses, shorts, accessories, and more. However, Will says it’s important to note that seersucker is not a pattern, but rather a weaving process that creates a lightweight, puckered cotton or cotton-blend fabric, ranging beyond stripes to other prints and even solids.
Despite the versatility of seersucker, the timeless vision that most often comes to mind is the fresh, summery blue and white. This is partly due to a movie that Will credits with popularizing Haspel’s seersucker suit. “In the film To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch wore the light blue-and-white seersucker that popularized the suit,” he explains, “but it is actually a moot point because the film was in black and white.”
These days, favorite Southern seersucker purveyors include Haspel (naturally), but also brands like New Orleans-based Jolie & Elizabeth (credited with “the original seersucker dress”), Southern Tide, and the ever-charming children’s-wear brands Southern Smocked Company and The Beaufort Bonnet Company.
But seersucker’s popularity isn’t limited to the South. It has also become a staple for New England and Mid-Atlantic-based brands like Vineyard Vines and Piping Prints. You can also typically find fun seersucker styles at national retailers like Brooks Brothers, Nordstrom, and Anthropologie.
And, if you venture a ways north to Capitol Hill, you’ll find Senate staffers donning their crisp stripes every Thursday during the summer. Despite its close-to-the-water locale, Washington, D.C., is known for its sweltering humidity. By the early 20th century, the Hill had traded in stiff suits for the cool, casual seersucker. Over 100 years later, the tradition still stands, with Southern staffers leading the charge and bi-partisan seersucker enthusiasts from across the country joining in.
Around these parts, Easter is the unofficial kickoff to seersucker season. We always look forward to pastel-studded events to mark the arrival of warm weather, and classic seersucker stripes will always have a place in our hearts, but we can’t wait to see where Southern designers take this trend next!
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