Don't be fooled by any striped fabric. Look for the pucker.

Seersucker Suit
Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

Beginning with the Kentucky Derby and throughout the hot summer months, everyone from Congressmen, stay-at-home moms, lawyers, and debutantes will reach for an item of clothing made from lightweight seersucker, the official Fabric of the Southern Summer. For anything worthy of becoming a classic, there is usually an interesting story behind it. Here is a glismps of seersucker's history that will make you love this fabric even more.

The original Persian name for the fabric was shir o shakkar, literally "milk and sugar." The word shakkar, can be traced back to a Sanskrit term for gravel or grit, which gives you a visual of what sugar must have looked like after it was extracted from the cane. It's also a clue to why "milk and sugar" was an appropriate metaphor to name the striped textile. The stripes alternate in both texture and color: the darker, rougher stripes would correspond with sugar, and the lighter, softer stripes with milk. When the East India Company began exporting this fabric, along with many other Eastern fabrics such as madras, back to Great Britain, the name was Anglicized to seersucker.

Indian seersucker was soon being traded in the American colonies and the booming cotton industry in the South eventually allowed the fabric to be made locally. The lightweight fabric, while especially suited to the hot Southern climate, remained chiefly a workingman's fabric.

The seersucker suit was created in 1909 by New Orleans tailor Joseph Haspel, who was looking for an inexpensive but cool fabric to use in making clothing for professional men. He understood that the puckers in the fabric, created as the yarn tension is regularly released during weaving, act like little feet holding the fabric off the wearer's skin and allowing the air to circulate around and under the fabric. To show how resilient his suits were (they didn't even need ironing), Haspel is famous for wearing a seersucker suit while he took a dip in the ocean. He returned to his rooms soaking wet, hung up the suit to dry, and later that evening wore it to dinner.

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The suit was a success down South and soon after World War I even Ivy League types were "dressing down" and making seersucker stylish. The rest, they say, is history. Almost everyone today, up and down the East Coast and way into the Deep South, can remember wearing seersucker during the hot summer months of their childhood. While still available with traditional tan or brown stripes, this classic summer fabric can be found sporting stripes of white paired with every color imaginable. Don't be fooled by just any striped fabric, however. Be sure and look for the pucker.