The warmer months are fast approaching and this means two things: summer Fridays, of course, and summer wardrobes. The latter is somewhat trickier to navigate. Ever since business casual became a thing, men have been under pressure to look not just smart but relaxed-smart – and during the warmer months that’s enough to make anyone break out in a sweat, whether you have to endure sweltering public transport or not.
Yes, nailing the summer look can be a minefield, but adding a few key pieces in breathable fabrics to your wardrobe will ensure you transition seamlessly from office to sun-soaked pub gardens in style. And the definitive functional summer fabric is seersucker. The lightweight, puckered cloth is comfortable, versatile and breezy in every sense of the word – perfect for all your warm-weather looks, no matter the dress code.
What Is Seersucker?
Look closely at the traditionally stripy gathered fabric and you’ll notice the different textures of the two stripes: one smooth (usually the lighter stripe) and one coarser in texture (often a pale blue). Invented in India, the durable cloth became known by its Persian sobriquet, shir o shekar, meaning ‘milk and sugar’, in reference to its crease-free combination of smooth and rough pinstripes.
The effect was originally produced using alternating silk and cotton warps, says Simone Ubertino Rosso, from Italy’s biggest clothmaker, Vitale Barberis Canonico. “When washed, the cotton shrank while the silk remained as before, thus creating the characteristic wrinkles. Nowadays, instead of silk, cottons are commonly used, and a skilful alternation of tighter and looser warps are utilised.” This is a technique known as a slack tension-weave, where one of the stripes of cotton is woven more tightly than the other, causing it to pucker.
The benefits are twofold. Firstly, seersucker doesn’t crease in the same way ordinary fabric might (technically it’s already creased), which creates added durability and makes it ideal for travelling in. (Linen nil, seersucker one.) Not only that, its natural puckering also creates extra pockets of space as the fabric sits off the layer beneath, allowing for increased air circulation and breathability.
“Seersucker is a a beautiful texture that suits well a multitude of garment shapes,” says designer Oliver Spencer. “It makes a fantastic suit. Although lightweight, the texture allows for stability and it’s an ideal fabric to choose for looking formal on hot, sunny days.”
The History of Seersucker
Menswear’s relationship with seersucker has been somewhat turbulent over the years. The crinkled cloth was swiftly adopted across the British colonies during the beginning of the 20th century, where its cooling attributes were ideal for warmer climes. As fabrics were traded across the pond into the new industrial powerhouse of America, the cloth was then adopted by labourers who wore functional seersucker workwear in the summer months – shirts, chore jackets, overalls and peaked hats were all made from a heavy-duty version of seersucker.
In 1909, it was introduced to the sartorial world by specialist American seersucker makers Haspel as the ultimate summer suit fabric. Born out of the New Orleans jazz movement, it became a look synonymous with the hazy southern states. Its Crescent City style was best captured by Miles Davis who personified this look on his At Newport 1958 album cover, demonstrating how to wear a soft-shouldered Italian-cut jacket with nonchalance. It was a heyday moment for the fabric and his louche approach is still a style cue worth noting today.
On the silver screen, Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch character introduced the seersucker suit to the mainstream as he defended Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird sporting a three-piece version, styled simply and cut with larger proportions that were in keeping with the sartorial dimensions of the era.
Gregory Peck wearing a seersucker suit as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
What Seersucker Means Today
In time, the fabric was adopted with a sneer sense of irony by Ivy League college kids, worn in an overtly preppy way, subverting its social and economic history. As it progressed from college grads to politicians, it slowly came to represent the ultimate leisure suit of the upper classes.
It’s these connotations that have turned men off the fabric for some time though, as seersucker came to represent a particular political class of gentleman. That it was so often styled to within an inch of its preppy life – picture Colonel Sanders branching out into the ice-cream industry – with snappy bow ties and pastel-shade shirts, it’s little wonder many have shied away from seersucker for want of looking too thematic.
But today, the cloth is once again a credible option for the warmer months; a more contemporary, crease-free – and arguably easier-to-wear – alternative to linen. The key to this renaissance has been its application by contemporary menswear designers. From casual bombers to slim-cut tailoring, seersucker is now able to adapt to a wide range of looks and personal styles.
Seersucker Style Tips
Don’t Treat It Differently
If you usually wear an Oxford shirt under a light wool navy jacket, then continue to do so with your seersucker blazer. If you wear sand chinos and a white T-shirt, then a seersucker version can easily be substituted in with minimum fuss.
Fit Is Key
With tailoring, the puckering of seersucker will add extra bulk and it doesn’t offer as much drape as other fabrics, so opt for a slimmer fit.
As with any other cloth, this doesn’t mean skin-tight, but slimmer options will keep it looking smart due to seersucker’s structure and ability to hold its shape. For an additional luxurious element, a silk-cotton blend will soften the fabric slightly and offer a touch more movement.
Avoid wearing a matching seersucker tie or pocket square – instead, opt for complementary warm-weather fabrics (think knitted silk, linen or chambray) in darker, sophisticated tones.
Tread lightly with traditional formal footwear such as Oxfords and avoid white or two-tone spectator shoes – contemporary options such as trainers or suede Derbies will help bring the look bang up to date while removing the fabric from its historical associations.
Don’t Get Shirty
When wearing seersucker tailoring as separates or a full suit, keep the look current and avoid contrast club collars and matching stripes, which can come across as old fashioned.
Instead, try a fresh white fresco shirt or T-shirt set against black or navy seersucker, or pick out the darker colour stripe with your choice of top.
Christopher Modoo, creative director of new menswear brand Kit Blake, offers some wise style tips: “The traditional blue and ecru stripes are perfect for resort shirts, but my favourite version is the darker, tonal version. Executed in navy and midnight blue, it has a sophisticated edge that’s ideal for a blazer.
“When wearing seersucker, I prefer to mix with other textures such as linen or fresco, rather than go head-to-toe in it.”
Do Get Shorty
Seersucker shorts are a great alternative to trousers and can be styled casually or smart. They’ll look even better after they’ve been washed a few times and softened a little – soon to become that item in your wardrobe that’s like a second skin. A vacation essential.
5 Modern Seersucker Pieces
Wearing a seersucker suit doesn’t have to mean colonial chic. The fabric is immensely sensible when you’re suiting up in warm weather and today’s versions are sold in modern, flattering cuts. For a summer wedding or days when the office air conditioning is MIA, seersucker tailoring will keep you cool and help you stand out from your perspiring peers.
A rich navy version is probably the most versatile option, pairing as well with a classic Breton T-shirt and sneakers as it does dress shirts. Brands like Oliver Spencer are evolving the fabric with check patterns that work as separates or a complete suit, but don’t discount traditional striped seersucker. Light blues, greys and whites reference the original colourways of the cloth, which looks as sophisticated today as it ever did.
Cool and casual jackets have, for some, completely replaced the blazer so it makes sense to have seersucker versions of ever-popular styles like the Harrington or bomber for the warmer months. As well as being ideal for off-duty summer layering, they are available in more colours than you’ll ever find in tailoring.
A perfect transitional item to take you from day to night, or casual to smart(ish), a seersucker bomber plays nicely with tailored shorts, dark denim jeans and smart trousers.
Seersucker button ups are perfect for barbecues, resortwear and suffocating commuter trains that leave most work shirts with tell-tale sweat patches.
Try a Cuban collar design for a nod to the fabric’s stylish fifties New Orleans’s heyday. Worn with either pleated tailored trousers and a slim belt, casual chino shorts or dark selvedge denim jeans, it works well underneath a jacket or as its own layer by the pool.
Staying in the vein of casual versatility, seersucker shorts are a great way to introduce the fabric into your wardrobe if you’re not quite ready for a full suit or blazer. The high street offers a wealth of excellent options, from casual to smart, with Next and Zara offering a particularly strong selection.
Stick to the classic white and blue stripe and they will slot seamlessly into your existing wardrobe.
Seersucker Baseball Hat
You can add texture to a look and nod to seersucker’s humble workwear beginnings on the rail-tracks of industrial America with a cap made from the fabric. Paired with jeans and a logo sweatshirt, it will give your look a modern nineties-style point of difference.