Seersucker is a thin, puckered, all-cotton fabric, commonly striped or chequered, used to make clothing for spring and summer wear. The word came into English from Persian, and originates from the words sheer and shakar, literally meaning "milk and sugar", probably from the resemblance of its smooth and rough stripes to the smooth texture of milk and the bumpy texture of sugar. Seersucker is woven in such a way that some threads bunch together, giving the fabric a wrinkled appearance in places. This feature causes the fabric to be mostly held away from the skin when worn, facilitating heat dissipation and air circulation. It also means that pressing is not necessary.
Common items of clothing made from seersucker include suits, shorts, shirts, and robes. The most common colors for it are white and blue; however, it is produced in a wide variety of colors, usually alternating colored stripes and puckered white stripes slightly wider than pin stripes.
During the British colonial period, seersucker was a popular material in Britain's warm weather colonies like British India. When seersucker was first introduced in the United States, it was used for a broad array of clothing items. For suits, the material was considered a mainstay of the summer wardrobe of gentlemen, especially in the South, who favored the light fabric in the high heat and humidity of the summer, especially prior to the arrival of air conditioning.
From the mid Victorian era until the early 20th century, seersucker was also known as bed ticking due to its widespread use in mattresses, pillow cases and nightshirts during the hot summers in the Southern US and Britain's overseas colonies. During the American Civil War, this cheap but durable material was used to make haversacks and even the famous baggy pants of Confederate Zouaves such as the Louisiana Tigers.
In the days of the Old West, a type of heavyweight dark blue seersucker known as "hickory stripe" was used to make the overalls, work jackets and peaked caps of train engineers and railroad workers such as George "Stormy" Kromer or Casey Jones. It was later worn by butchers and employees of the gasoline companies, most notably Standard Oil. This cotton fabric was durable like denim, cheap to produce, kept the wearer cool in the hot cab of the steam locomotive, and obscured oil or coal tar stains. Even today, the uniforms of American Union Pacific train drivers include "railroad stripe" caps based on those from the steam age, and some rolling stock used for freight, shunting and maintenance work is painted with blue and white "zebra stripes" to improve visibility.
The fabric was originally worn by the poor in the U.S. until preppy undergraduate students began wearing it in the 1920s in an air of reverse snobbery. Damon Runyon wrote that his new habit for wearing seersucker was "causing much confusion among my friends. They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue."
Seersucker is comfortable and easily washed and was the choice for the summer service uniforms of the first female United States Marines. The decision was made by Captain Anne A. Lentz, one of the first female officers selected to run the Marine Corps Women's Reserve during the Second World War. From the 1940s onwards, nurses and US hospital volunteers also wore uniforms made from a type of red and white seersucker known as candy stripe.
In modern fashion
During the 1950s, cheap railroad stripe overalls were worn by many young boys until they were old enough to wear jeans. This coincided with the popularity of train sets, and films such as The Great Locomotive Chase. At the same time, seersucker formal wear continued to be worn by many professional adults in the Southern and Southwestern US. College professors were known to favor full suits with red bowties, although 1950s Ivy League and 21st century preppy students usually restricted themselves to a single seersucker garment, such as a blazer paired with khaki chino trousers. Menswear brands famous for manufacturing seersucker at this time included Brooks Brothers, Macy's, Sears, and Joseph Haspel of New Orleans.
In the 1970s, seersucker pants were popular among young urban African Americans seeking to connect to their rural heritage. The fabric made a comeback among teenage girls in the 1990s, and again in the 2010s.
Beginning in 1996, the US Senate held a Seersucker Thursday in June, where the participants dress in traditionally Southern clothing, but the tradition was discontinued in June 2012. As of June 2014, it has been revived by members of the US Senate. At the same time, however, some senators such as Ryan McKenna of Missouri have spoken against the wearing of seersucker due to its traditional use by small children. The Republican Party has advised students at its Comms college not to wear seersucker when appearing before the cameras because of its old fashioned connotations, plus the disruptive effect of the stripes.
Dr. Seuss's book If I Ran the Zoo mentions "a Nerkle, a Nerd and a Seersucker too". The Rolling Stones' song "West Coast Promo Man" talks about wearing a seersucker suit. The Tom Petty song "Down South" mentions wearing seersucker and white linens. The Who wrote "My jacket's gonna be cut and slim and checked, Maybe a touch of seersucker, with an open neck."
2010 to present
From 2012 onwards, seersucker blazers and pants made a comeback among American men due to a resurgence of interest in preppy clothing and the 1920s fashion showcased in The Great Gatsby. Although pale blue and dark blue stripes remained the most popular choice, alternative colors included green, red, black, grey, beige, yellow, orange, purple, pink, and brown. The traditional two button blazer was updated with a slimmer cut and Edwardian inspired lapel piping, and double breasted jackets became available during the mid 2010s. Since 2010, "Seersucker Social" events have been held in major cities across the United States, where participants wear vintage clothes and ride vintage bicycles. Such events are the summer equivalent of a Tweed Run, which is traditionally held in the fall.
In the 2016 Olympics hosted by Brazil, the Australian Olympic team received green and white seersucker blazers and Toms shoes rather than the traditional dark green with gold trim. At the same time, seersucker pants, skirts, espadrilles, blouses, and even bikinis were worn as casual attire by many fashion conscious young women in America.
Seersucker is made by slack-tension weave. The threads are wound onto the two warp beams in groups of 10 to 16 for a narrow stripe. The stripes are always in the warp direction and ongrain. Today, seersucker is produced by a limited number of manufacturers. It is a low-profit, high-cost item because of its slow weaving speed. Seersuckers are made in plain colors, stripes, plaids, checks (also known as gingham) and prints. Seersucker is used in curtains and summer suiting, dresses, and sportswear.
Close up of green/white checkered seersucker, or "gingham", fabric showing the weave details.
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