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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.
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. It was later worn by 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 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.
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 South 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.
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.
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.
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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- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000
- Fill er up!
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- Hickory stripe
- Santa Fe Zebra Stripe
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