Jake Armerding

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.

A Live Music Retrospective

Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams in concert (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m pretty sure my first concert was Stryper. I know. See, at the time, my parents had instituted a “Christian Music on Sundays Only” rule, and if there was good music being made by Christians at the time, I was clueless. I guess I heard Stryper on KSBJ and thought, Cool – rock ‘n’ roll! And, if I was going to any concert at a young age, it was with my parents, and it would be “Christian.” To my parents’ credit, they probably didn’t like the band any more than I do now, but they took me to that show regardless.

Even though I now shudder at the thought of that glam metal band, I must admit that something important happened during my first concert. The band I once listened to on the radio or cassette was playing live, right in front of me. I was bit by the magic of live music – yes, even by Stryper.

Thankfully, years later, I met some friends in college who introduced me to really good live music. Little did they know they had changed my life for the better, forever. I heard Ellis Paul at Mucky Duck at least four times because he’s an amazing songwriter (and a friend had a crush on him). The venue was so small we nearly sat at his feet, and she said hi to him afterward, nearly swooning. I also heard Buddy & Julie Miller, which were my first exposure to alt-country, which is awesome. Julie was quirky, funny, brilliant, and right in the middle of her set, she gave her conversion testimony to a crowd of beer drinkers so naturally as if to say, Here’s what I believe. He changed my life. Make of it what you will. And yet, she spoke with sincerity and gentleness – as opposed to the overpowering tactics of Stryper. The room was quiet with awe, then the rowdy music started up again. I sat very close to the stage that night, too, and that combination of artistry and honesty make me admire the Millers’ music to this very day.

A few years ago, my husband took me to a Sigur Rós show, and Jonsí’s voice sounded like a dream as he bowed his guitar like a violin. My Aunt Denise and I saw Sufjan Stevens at the Paramount in Austin, TX; he and his entire orchestra wore butterfly wings while he furtively tucked truthful lyrics into hipsters’ hearts (mine included). My aunt and I also watched Ryan Adams storm on and off stage in Stubb’s backyard. I’ve seen several great shows with my aunt; we bond over words both in music and books. Once at a Kasey Chambers show, the artist covered a classic song, “If I Needed You.” Denise turned to me and said, “Who wrote this song?” Quick as a whip I replied, “Townes Van Zandt.” She beamed and said, “We ARE related!”

You might’ve read here and there that health has not been my forte the past few years; I sit here awaiting a second surgery that should fix my body. But you know what? Live music is literally healing for me. It puts my head in the right place. For instance, recently I heard Waterdeep at Ecclesia/Taft St. Coffee. It was a fantastic show, and during the last song, a rat scampered straight down the wall behind the duo. There was a communal gasp, and everyone looked around their feet, trying to pay attention to the great song that is “Good Good End.” Now that’s live music. We also heard Derek Webb play a Haiti benefit there. Thankfully, no rats that time. The only surprise was Danielle Young (of Caedmon’s Call) joining him on stage. I sipped my usual from the coffee shop: Monk’s Prayer tea (chamomile + peppermint).

Photo: Jenni Simmons

Photo: Jenni Simmons

In April, I noticed on Twitter that Andrew Osenga would play a free set on Ecclesia’s patio one Sunday. Houston had good weather for once, and as the sky darkened, bulb lights strung from the roof lit up. I sipped Monk’s Prayer (again). And right before his first song, Andrew looked straight at me and Johnny and said, “Hey, don’t I know y’all from Facebook?” We looked behind our seats, and to our left and right before we realized he was talking to us. Truly, the wonders of Facebook/Twitter never cease to amaze me.

Andrew was wearing casual, outdoorsy clothes with sandals, and in between songs he mentioned his toes were unusual, unique – we could ask him about them afterward. He played many of his greats with just his guitar, including crowd favorites “Canada” and “Anna and the Aliens.” He is such a great songwriter and guitarist – a master of melody, story, and humor.

So, I had to ask about the toes. He said, “Look at them.”

I counted 1, 2, 3 . . . 7, 8, 9 toes. I looked up, “You were born with only nine toes?”

“No,” he said, “I accidentally mowed one off.”

(Me, horrified) “Did it hurt?!”

He said something to the effect of, “Hell, yes! That’s how I met all of my new neighbors – writhing and screaming in pain on our front lawn.”

Now I ask you, would you hear a story like that just listening to a CD? I think not.

We went inside to buy an Andrew Osenga pint glass (wouldn’t you?) and to sponsor his favorite charity, Ellie’s Run. He said, “If you’re bored, I’m doing this taping thing somewhere next – y’all are welcome to come.” Seeing as my health was behaving, we accepted the invitation and drove over to an old warehouse where Andrew filmed for a music webcast called The Serial Box.

Photo: Jenni Simmons

We walked up the stairs around the coolest old freight elevator, knocked on a door, and entered a small room with old brown brick walls, a few folks, a scattering of chairs, and big cameras looming overhead. I tried to scribble down the set list accurately, but I was too fascinated by the whole filming process, not to mention Andrew’s songs. I’m fairly certain he sang “Memory” and “Swing Wide the Glimmering Gates” – two of my favorites. (Be sure and look up “Memory.” It’ll make you want to cry and go hug your spouse, but in a beautiful way.) All in all, it was a night of good health, great music, and meeting a talented, kind, and funny guy.

On Wednesday of that week, we returned to Ecclesia, this time to hear Jake Armerding and Kevin Gosa for a Provision of Hope benefit show, helping Liberian war-afflicted orphans, widows, and refugees. This was exciting on three counts: helping those in need, hearing Jake for the first time, and meeting Kevin – a fellow Curator writer & editor – my first of these New Yorkers to meet in the flesh! (I’m so proud to report that Houston is Kevin’s favorite city in Texas.)

We sat indoors this time near a stage softly lit by tall candelabras. Yes, I drank Monk’s Prayer tea again, but I think it has a lot to do with the poetic name. The music began, and I’d never heard anything like it. It was folk music, but without that Southern country flavor. Jake is from Boston and Kevin is from the Midwest by way of New Jersey, so I wondered if geography played into the difference – perhaps more of a Celtic, Old World influence. I’d (badly) describe it as jazz-tinged Northern folk. Whatever you call it, I loved it.

Photo: Jenni Simmons

Jake played acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle; Kevin played the soprano and tenor saxophones; and a friend named Matt Davis played bass on a few songs. I never knew a saxophone and fiddle could sound so good together, but the chemistry between Jake and Kevin is amazing – they could really jam instrumentally, and Kevin killed it on the sax. Jake also sang songs about backpacking, a few love songs, a song about the devil, and a protest song about airport security. Can I get an amen? It was a wonderful night of meeting a virtual friend, and hearing a brand new genre.

The next day, we drove through a sea of bluebonnets to Dallas to see my parents, and to go to a Patty Griffin & Buddy Miller show at The House of Blues. As I mentioned above, I have a serious musical crush on Buddy & Julie Miller. I’ve also been a drooling fan of Patty Griffin ever since I was hypnotized by her very first record, Living with Ghosts, on the radio in Austin, TX. So you can imagine my excitement when Buddy Miller walked out on stage, that crazy white hair under his hat. I believe he opened with “Chalk,” which undoes me to the core. Then Patty walked out with her beautiful, crazy red hair, and the crowd went nuts. But she just stood there, very demure, obviously as in awe of Buddy as I was. She simply backed him to greats like “Gasoline and Matches,” a song that his wife, Julie, used to get him to stay home one night. She grabbed her guitar, yelled out the song, and he stayed (Patty played spoons on that one). He also played “All My Tears” (written by Julie), which is my funeral song. Weird, I know, but what could be a better song to celebrate the end of a good life?

When I go, don’t cry for me
in my Father’s arms I’ll be.
The wounds this world left on my soul
will all be healed and I’ll be whole.
The sun and moon will be replaced
with the light of Jesus’ face.
. . . It don’t matter where you bury me,
I’ll be home and I’ll be free . . .
all of my tears be washed away.

Photo: Jenni Simmons

Next was Patty’s main set, and she sang a wide spectrum of songs from her records. She informed us that “Heavenly Day” is a love song to her dog, which I found quite charming. And then she sang several gems from her latest album, Downtown Church, which she did in fact record in a Presbyterian church in downtown Nashville (and Buddy produced). She sang with soul, grit, Truth, rock, and blues. I sipped Chardonnay from a plastic cup and watched the patchwork curtains bleed red, purple, and blue light. I don’t think Patty is a regular church-goer, but I’m here to tell you, the Gospel breathed on every person in that dark club. My health began to fail me a bit, but I listened and swayed with the worship of the weary. Before we waded through the crowd to our car, Buddy announced that they’d partnered with World Vision for this tour – yet more great musicians giving to those in dire need.

We drove back home through the Texas countryside and I thought to myself, We just traveled to another city for live music. Good grief. And here’s why. A CD or digital file becomes “incarnate.” The musicians are there in the flesh, their songs taking on a whole new being – real, live, and breathing. Instead of endlessly consuming both free and paid-for music, we should migrate to an artful space and see, listen, and ingest the songs – let the volume pummel us for a bit, for the good. Oh, and be sure and document your experience with bad iPhone photography. It’s all the rage, you know.

We even need to venture out to hear unknown artists – you’ll never find the good unless you seek. The musicians need to see their fans, too, not just record sales. No matter if they are your favorite songwriter in the whole world and you’re very geeked up – they are just regular, hardworking people. And yet, you might get a chance to shake their hand and thank them for their many sacrifices to bring you good music; to commune with you.

When we go hear live music, we do join a community – so important in these days of isolation. Money is tight in our economy, but let us go and support live music together as patrons, and if it be a benefit show, even better. Music often rouses our hearts to give to those around the world, and paints music & lyric of people living in horrific conditions we can’t even imagine. Music can help save the world.

Photo: Jenni Simmons