Recently, while in pursuit of a summer wardrobe staple that would satisfy my requisite qualifications of functionality and fashionability (not to mention practicality), I stumbled across an Italian ad campaign that led me down a style path I'd all but abandoned. It featured a clever take on a classic American standard: the seersucker suit. The clothing approximated the traditional seersucker look, but as executed for the Amalfi Coast; instead of a puckered blazer and pants with a crisp solid shirt, the suit was crisp, while the shirt was ruckled. Genius, I thought—a modern way to pull off that time-honored summertime ensemble, without all those wrinkles.
My history with the fabric, however, suggested that the inverted seersucker look might not be for me. The man in the ad, after all, was far cooler than I am. He wore aviators that only Riviera-based playboys can sport with authority, and looked like the kind of guy who commanded a private jet. Yes, he might know how to pick up on ultimate Southern American style, but the daring of his novelty was only a reminder that I, even tapping into my deep-rooted Italian DNA, might have to look beyond seersucker for impeccable summer moda.
Try as I might, I had never been one to get seersucker right. Growing up among golfing dads and tennis-skirt-clad moms, my style had always been positively preppy, but of the Yankee flair. When it came to warm-weather jackets, I reached for madras patchwork blazers or airy, tan cottons. Seersucker beckoned, but I—on somewhat wary fashion footing—wavered. One summer, when I discovered a navy linen blazer versatile enough to wear to both morning Mass and later to a beachside picnic, I knew I had struck gold. But part of me whimpered inside, wishing I'd been born into a Southern Presbyterian family that trotted off to services—even if swelteringly so—in blue-and-white seersucker suits.
Several years ago, when a friend was getting married during the high heat of summer, my giddiness for what to wear got the better of me. Earlier that season, I had found a white-on-white seersucker suit, and later turned the pages of a trusted fashion magazine offering up different ways to dress for a summer wedding. One editor suggested a white-on-white seersucker suit, paired with a thin black bow tie and slip-on loafers, sans socks. Very cool, I thought—not just the look, but the breeziness of that forgiving summertime seersucker. And this was not your grandfather's seersucker. It was a perfectly modern preppy version that seemed spot-on.
Going in for a fitting was a different story. As the tailor pinned the legs for a skinny fit, then pulled in the jacket from the back, my silhouette was much improved upon, but something wasn't right. Wasn't seersucker supposed to leave a little slack, for breathing? Wasn't the point that it's not supposed to look pressed, or perfect? Staring at myself in the mirror, I realized that I looked as ready as ever for a photo shoot on how to wear a summer tuxedo, but this particular fitting paid no tribute whatsoever to the tradition of seersucker.
Indeed, seersucker is a fabric of fantasy and fancy—and certainly of tradition. The mere mention of it conjures images of Southern gentlemen with distinctive drawls, and of unhurried summer afternoons spent regaling on a veranda over mint juleps. Today a certain patrician association exists with seersucker; it's not just any Southern man whom we imagine wearing it, but a certain kind of Southern man, like the do-good attorney Atticus Finch, portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. And for those Southern gents who favor it, wearing seersucker is like honoring an unspoken convention. "Confidence is a lot of it," explains Asher Simcoe, a Baton Rouge–raised New York financier, "and so is respect, for the tradition of it." In other words, while it takes a certain boldness to pull off seersucker, those who wear it simultaneously don the distinction it represents.
"Indeed, seersucker is a fabric of fantasy and fancy—and certainly of tradition."
Still, seersucker wasn't always such a status symbol. Though today it's thought of as rather upper-middle-class, the textile was originally working-class. Cheap, cool, and made of cotton, it breathed effortlessly, was easy to wash, and made for a good uniform. In the 1920s, collegiate youths, in a wave of ironic anti-snobbery, began wearing seersucker during the summer months. Much like the burgeoning Ivy League style, it was a whimsical defiance of orthodox buttoned-up suiting, making it en vogue.
Fashion barometers aside, seersucker is functional for those who know and appreciate it. "First and foremost," Simcoe says, "it's extremely practical. The fabric has been around for hundreds of years, and only recently has it been about trends. It's survived because it's so breathable." And sweltering Southern summers demand a material that's up to the task.
The thin, puckered cloth is unmistakable. Most commonly known in white and blue stripes, other colors such as tan, green, and pink have seeped into the seersucker vocabulary. And while the most recognizable form is the full-on suit, the ever-steady rage for seersucker has brought about belts, ties, shorts, and stand-alone jackets. The word originates from the Persian term shir o shakar, which means "milk and sugar," probably referring to the combination of even and bumpy stripes that look like smooth milk cascading down streams of granular sugar. It's woven so that the threads bunch together, pulling in and away from the skin, hence the coolness. This also accounts for the fabric's wrinkled appearance, making it even more practical, because ironing is not merely impractical—it's impossible.
In spite of its intrinsic wrinkled quality—or perhaps because of it—stylish men certainly manage an assured swagger in seersucker. "Seersucker presents imperfections in a delightful way," Bronson van Wyck, head of the environmental-design and event-production firm Van Wyck & Van Wyck, explains. For van Wyck, who grew up in Arkansas and considers seersucker "the ultimate signal of summertime leisure," there is something wonderful and freeing about it. After all, he says, only in seersucker can you "slouch down in a wicker chair on the porch and not have to worry about wrinkling anything—it's supposed to be wrinkled."
Isn't that the beauty of seersucker, the reason why I have always fancied it? Whenever I see it, I imagine just that: slouching down in a wicker chair, somewhere in the Deep South. And perhaps that is why I was so excited to find a seersucker match this summer: a pair of tan-and-white seersucker shorts. Suitable for daytime, paired with a cotton button-down, as well as for summer evenings on the Eastern Seaboard, topped with a cable-knit cashmere crew sweater.
Standing in my pleasantly wrinkled shorts, I can't help but smile at having found the perfect marriage of my ongoing seersucker fantasy and my Northeastern preppy ways. Not only do my shorts add an inkling of Southern panache to foggy New England summer mornings, but they foretell the glory of sunny summer afternoons ahead: sitting with a cold gin and tonic in hand, lounging in a spontaneously dressed-up manner, not caring that the condensation trickling down from the highball glass is dripping on my lap, wrinkling my look.
Thanks to seersucker, you don't have to forsake formality; in a casually classy way, you own it.
Daniel Cappello is the fashion director of Quest magazine and the author of The Ivy League (Assouline, 2012).