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Seersucker, Here to Stay

Old State House Museum - Thursday, May 04, 2017

A brief history of the classic Southern summer wardrobe staple. Don YOUR seersucker or favorite Southern summer attire from 6-8 p.m. on May 18 and join us for the Seersucker Social on the lawn of the Old State House Museum, hosted by the museum's 1836 Club. Enjoy mint juleps, hors d'oeuvres, lawn games and more while supporting important programs like the School Bus Fund. Buy tickets here.

The seersucker suit was first introduced in the U.S. in the early 1900s, but the fabric originated in India, introduced to the British by the East India Company, in the 1600s. According to the Encyclopedia of Textiles, “seersucker” is derived from the Persian shir o shakar or “milk and sugar,” for the fabric’s contrasting rough and smooth texture, and it appears in the late 1600s on cargo listings to the U.S. colonies. Originally created from silk, by the time of the Industrial Revolution, the fabric was being manufactured from cotton – the beloved seersucker we know and love today.

Seersucker was first mass-produced in New Orleans by Joseph Haspel, who founded his brand in 1909 and considered the fabric ideal for surviving the hot, humid Southern climate. For a while, seersucker was known as a workingman’s fabric and was associated with the labor class. Durable and affordable, it was worn by train engineers, butchers, and recognizably at the time, employees of Standard Oil. Before suits, Haspel and his brother made seersucker coveralls for Louisiana factory workers.

It wasn’t long before the brothers began producing a seersucker suit marketed as “wash and wear,” a suit perfect for gentlemen working through the oppressive Crescent City summers. Cool and lightweight, the garment was embraced by office workers who suffered in heavy suits through the heat with no air conditioning. The Haspel company is still today one of the leading producers of seersucker clothing.

In the 1920s, hip Ivy League undergraduates, in a rebellion against class distinction, carried the look up North, although it took a while for the style to catch on. The suit became popular in the South with politicians and lawyers, solidifying its status as a staple in Southern couture.

While staying out of harm’s way in the Bahamas during World War II, the Duke of Windsor took a liking to the seersucker suit and further helped the garment pull away from its working-class association. Seersucker suit sales soared in the post-war years.

Contributing to its growing popularity, in 1955, Miles Davis sported a seersucker jacket and cap on the cover of his album The Musings of Miles and, in 1962, Gregory Peck wore a seersucker suit in To Kill a Mockingbird on the silver screen.  

The popularity of the seersucker suit waned after the introduction of air conditioning. However, it never lost its fashion appeal in the South and recent years have seen the seersucker trend on an uptick. No longer confined to the factories of New Orleans, Haspel’s vision of comfortable, fuss-free apparel has gained popularity, and can sometimes be spotted even beyond the Mason-Dixon Line.

Today’s seersucker enthusiast has more choices than their early 20th century counterparts – it’s available in more colors than ever (tone-on-tone seersucker? Yes!) and no longer relegated to menswear. Seersucker shorts, skirts, dresses and all varieties of children’s clothes have found their way into summer closets – and it’s with good reason this classic fabric is favored by Southern fashionistas