barbershop

A Seersucker Manifesto

This article was first published in April of 2011.

No more dangerous fabric has ever been woven, washed, and worn in the history of mankind than seersucker.

Simple yet deadly, this cotton killer has condemned more fellows’ fashionableness than Fidel. (Is there anything less dapper than Castro’s garish garb?) Countless gents every spring, emboldened by the sun’s reviving rays, adorn themselves in crinkled colors and warbled white from head to toe. Confident in their comfort they step and strut not knowing this selection will forever blemish the veritableness of their future vestments.

Of course some men possess enough panache to pull it off. They know who they are.

But to the rest of Mandom I issue a strong warning.

Be wary of this weave.

First, it is nearly impossible to wear seersucker without irony or nostalgia.

Nothing calamities classiness more than donning duds with irony. I am speaking not of the juvenile, ironic t-shirt, rather of when the very essence of an outfit oozes mockery and self-awareness. “Hey everyone look at me! Doesn’t my attire make me look witty? I am wearing a garbage bag and used, holey penny loafers, and I haven’t shaved or showered since Groundhog Day. This style is called Derelicte.”

There’s nothing attractive or creative about such sardonic irreverence. Nor is there anything gentlemanly about such contempt-filled costumery.

Ironically (wink, wink) the seersucker is contemporarily associated with southern gentlemanliness. And, even more interesting are its origins in the United States as wears for the poor.

In a 2006 article about seersucker in the New York Times, David Colman writes:

“Widely considered patrician, seersucker was a 19th-century workingman’s fabric, a cheap American cotton version of a luxurious Indian silk. In the 1920’s stylish undergraduates, in a spirit of reverse snobbery, took up the thin puckered fabric for summer wear. That edge was still sharp in 1945, when Damon Runyon wrote that his new penchant for wearing seersucker was “causing much confusion among my friends.”

“They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue,” he wrote dryly.

Seersucker’s origins are not lost on clothing designers whose ads convince guys this is apparel that will garner respect – or babes – while keeping you looking and feeling “cool.” Seersucker certainly feels cool in the temperature sense, but in the end most guys look like tools of the fashion industry when they stuff themselves into a too tight pair of sucker shorts with a rolled-sleeve sucker blazer and a v-neck t-shirt. Unless you own a yacht and beach house in The Hamptons — where you retreat with Ralph Lauren and toast with Tommy Hilfiger — you’re being ironic and annoying.

The second major concern is that even without irony, seersucker is a very difficult fabric to wear well. Countless images of chiseled models wearing sucker suits give the appearance of a crisp, clean drape. And while the fabric may be manipulated to hold that sharp shape, the natural lay of seersucker is more slackened and supple. This isn’t a problem for skinny dudes with straight, square body types. But for curvy gents, athletes, or miscellaneous, oddly shaped beaux, it’s difficult to slip on the seer without looking like one has slipped on pajamas.

Fit is king. Fabric is second. If one’s habit hangs well, it hardly matters who made it, or how much it cost. However, of what it is made has a huge implication for how it fits. This is where seersucker threads tread toward troubled waters. It is a weave not woven to hold a pristine pressing, but rather revel in rumpled relaxation; wrinkly raiment is the usually the reserve of dressed-down denim and t-shirts, not of more formal finery. Such a juxtaposition contained embroidered into the cotton itself can careen a chap quickly into accoutrement catastrophe. Combine that with the aforementioned connotations and cultural implications, and seersucker can dive a dude into douchebaggery faster than smoking a cheap pipe and wearing a Target-brand fedora, brand-new trenchcoat, and a clip-on bow tie.

If you’re going to wear seersucker, you MUST know exactly how and why. Every small detail needs to be carefully considered. What width and color of striping? What color shoes? Oxfords or loafers? Clean shaven face or stubbly one? No tie, tie or bowtie? Belt or suspenders? Button down shirt or polo? The list could go on and on.

One slight misstep and a fellow might find himself being mistaken as the fifth man in a barbershop quartet, handed a red, white, and blue boater, and hauled off against his will to the International Barbershop Quartet Convention in Kansas City, MO. (Confession: I love barbershop quartet music, but would rather avoid being incorrectly thought to sing in one.)

More than anything, to wear seersucker well you have to believe in it — own it 100%. No hesitation; no waffling; no backpedaling. If you walk into an H&M, see a seersucker jacket and think, I’m gonna buy that; it looks cool, then you are in for a world of regret.

Fashion is a lot like cuisine. You can rain salt onto a bland dish to season it. Or, you can take the time and care to season it well while cooking so the finished creation is saline and alive with flavor from the inside and not the out. In a recent email conversation on this Rob Hays wrote, “a bow tie can be worn like it’s just another tie, or like it should be part of a face paint and clown nose ensemble; a seersucker suit can be worn like it’s just another suit, or like you’re auditioning for the role of Atticus Finch.”

I’ve known only one man north of the Mason-Dixon line to wear a seersucker suit and look like he was born to do it. I marveled at how he accomplished this astounding act. And as I considered all the mitigating factors I realized his very day-to-day life was preparation for parading such panoply.

Zack Hickman wearing a cowboy suit.

Zack Hickman, born in Lynchburg, VA, lives outside Boston, plays the upright bass, tours with Josh Ritter, sings about his handlebar moustache, performs music by Schoolhouse Rock, has degrees in English and music, and is tall. He is described thusly by the laudatory Jake Armerding:

“One of the few for whom superlatives truly fail. Resident general, fire marshal, ringmaster and power behind the throne. Maintains these offices with the help of one of the nation’s great moustaches, carefully cultivated with the use of beeswax harvested from his father’s hives. (A venture into retail, Dr. Zachariah’s Mustache Conditioning Wax and Gravity Suppressant, was, sadly, short-lived.) Buys used boots in bulk from various online vendors. Owns Z-shaped belt buckle. Has successfully roasted and served turducken. Featured in the Improper Bostonian and Stuff Boston. Swears loudly and creatively, often as part of pre-show warm-up routine. Plays the bass as if someone were going to take it away from him. (For a more visual analogy, picture the Bengal tiger from Swiss Family Robinson.)

This man defines a seersucker-worthy lifestyle.

I can’t match that. So, I don’t wear seersucker. I can’t pull it off, and I know I can’t. In fact, my playing the saxophone immediately disqualifies me from even attempting.

So men, know your limits; there’s no shame in that.

And for those who sincerely sport seersucker, I salute you.