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History of Seersucker

History of Seersucker

For centuries, seersucker has been a characteristic fabric associated with the United States and the American South in particular. Whimsical, fun, and uniquely textured, the coolness and distinctive appearance of seersucker have made it a popular warm- and hot-weather option for stylish gentlemen across the globe, and it is regularly used to make slacks, jackets, shorts, suits, and sport shirts.

Seersucker, sometimes referred to as “railroad stripe,” is a thin fabric usually made from cotton that has been woven with a unique puckered appearance. It is often striped but can also be a solid or cheque.

“Seersucker” is an Anglicization of the Persian name for the cloth, which is شیر و شکر (shir eu shakar). Literally meaning “sugar and milk,” it is intended to capture the fact that seersucker is both smooth, like milk, and also prominently rumpled, because of the puckering, like a pile of sugar.


Universal Works - Road Shirt In In Washed Indigo Seersucker

Historically, seersucker was made using alternating cotton and silk or linen warp yarns. During washing, the cotton would shrink more than the silk or linen, creating the fabric’s warped texture.

Today, seersucker is made almost exclusively from cotton. In the modern process, individual warp yarns are pulled tighter than others in a technique known as slack-tension weaving. The alternating bands of higher and lower tension produce the fabric’s unique puckered appearance.

The exact origins of seersucker are unknown, although it almost certainly originated in the Indian Subcontinent. In the 18th century, when European powers encountered the Mughal Empire that ruled India, the fabric was well-known and favored because it was so cooling, was durable, and could be easily washed.

Following the integration of India into the British Empire, seersucker became a favored fabric across the tropical British colonial holdings. Colonial officials, in particular, had entire suits cut from seersucker, and with time the fabric was adopted in Europe and North America for use in hot climates.

In the hot and muggy American South, in particular, seersucker proved especially popular because of its cooling effect and the fact that it was relatively durable and easy to wash. During the American Civil War, several regiments of the Confederate States of America wore seersucker uniforms, the most famous of which were Zouaves units like the Louisiana Tigers.

Prior to the invention of modern conveniences like electric fans and air conditioning, cooling fabrics like seersucker were essential for daily wear, and remained an extremely popular fabric across the South for decades to come, cementing this material’s association with the region.


Benzak - BWS-01 Work Shirt 6.5 oz. brown cord stripe

Seersucker was not mass-produced in the United States until shortly after 1909 when Joseph and Harry Haspel founded The Haspel Company. As part of a publicity stunt, Joseph Haspel wore a seersucker suit to a business convention in Florida, where he walked into the sea wearing it, wore it until it dried, and then appeared before his fellow businessmen, thereby showcasing the fabric’s unique characteristics. The Haspel Company continues to manufacture seersucker to this day.


1950 HASPEL Clothes Original Magazine Ad - New Orleans

Because of its relative durability and cooling effect, seersucker was regarded as a working fabric outside of the South. Furthermore, because the American South was often considered backward and destitute by the rest of the country, seersucker, as a material, was not held in high esteem, and suits made from it were generally denigrated as a “poor man’s suit.”


Benzak - BWS-01 WORK SHIRT 6.5 oz. blue & white cord stripe

Starting in the late 19th century and through the early 20th century, industrial workers, including train engineers and oil company laborers, began wearing overalls, jackets, and peaked caps made from a seersucker with blue indigo stripes because it was hardwearing and easy to clean. This distinctive pattern, known as Hickory Stripe or Railroad Stripe, is still popularly associated with railroad employees, and to this day, the uniform of the Union Pacific Railroad features a cap with blue and white stripes.


Benzak - BWS-03 Military Overshirt 12.7 oz. Hickory Stripe

Seersucker’s associations with the working class and the South were emphasized by two cultural events in mid-century America. In 1955, jazz great Mile Davis released his The Musings of Miles album, appearing on its cover in a cap and seersucker jacket to emphasize the working-class aesthetics of the scene. A few years later, Gregory Peck, in the role of Atticus Finch in the 1962 film adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird, would again indelibly associate seersucker with Southerners, appearing in such a suit during several scenes.


Beginning in the 1970s, however, public and private buildings in the American South were increasingly fitted with air conditioning. As a result, hot-weather fabrics were no longer as essential as they once were. Furthermore, the proliferation of cheaper synthetic performance materials encouraged the general abandonment of seersucker as a de rigeur material in the South. While seersucker never totally disappeared, it did lose its place in the Southern sartorial pantheon as the reigning summer fabric, giving way in popularity to other materials.

While no longer as popular as it once was, seersucker still enjoys a privileged and popular position in menswear. Internationally, it is viewed as a quintessentially American fabric, while in the United States, it is associated primarily with the South and with hot climates secondarily.


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