Seersucker History

Seersucker History

There’s been a heat wave moving across the Eastern U. S. this week which inspired this month’s post on a fabric that was designed for scorching weather. Feeling hot? Try some seersucker.

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Closeup of seersucker. Peteski1 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

This fabric is undoubtedly more often associated with men but after finding a seersucker woman’s bodice in the MET’s collection I was curious to learn more. There are almost no examples of seersucker in women’s wear prior to 1940. Why is that?

Suit, cotton, American
Seersucker women’s jacket from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. American, ca. 1881, cotton, 1983.44.2a, b, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/84116.

Seersucker was popular in the British colonies in India, where the fabric originated, before it made its way to the United States. The colonists in India began wearing and exporting the fabric through the East India Company to Europe around the 17th century, taken with the material that was well-suited to hot climates. You may be wondering, why the name “seersucker”? It comes from the sound of the Persian words for the fabric name, shir o shakkar, which translates to milk and sugar, and was Anglicized to seersucker. Patricia York of Southern Living notes:

The word shakkar, can be traced back to a Sanskrit term for gravel or grit, which gives you a visual of what sugar must have looked like after it was extracted from the cane. It’s also a clue to why “milk and sugar” was an appropriate metaphor to name the striped textile. The stripes alternate in both texture and color: the darker, rougher stripes would correspond with sugar, and the lighter, softer stripes with milk.”[1]

2012FU4722_2500
Textile, fragment of striped cotton and silk seersucker, Dhaka, ca. 1872, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O477761/fragment-unknown/.

It’s difficult to find extant examples or information on what associations this fabric had in India and throughout Asia prior to the British colonists (feel free to comment on the post with any info!), but by the time the fabric made its way to Europe century, and subsequently the United States in the 19th century, it was associated with the working classes. Durable, made of relatively cheap cotton, and breathable in hot weather were all characteristics of the fabric that made it suitable for laborers. A New York Times article described it as “a 19th-century workingman’s fabric, a cheap American cotton version of a luxurious Indian silk.” [2]

The fabric allows for air circulation due to its slack tension weave and “the puckered effect generates air spaces between the body and the fabric, keeping the wearer cool in hot conditions as the puckered area holds the fabric away from the skin during usage.”[3] It’s constructed to be comfortable in the heat. Compared to fabrics that lie flat, “seersucker fabrics are characterized by high thermal resistance, several times higher than the thermal resistance of typical flat woven fabrics.”[4]

1180px-Seersucker-sample1
Seersucker fabric. Giftzwerg 88 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

These fabric properties and the relatively low cost of the material meant that it was initially used by the lower classes.  Joseph Haspel of New Orleans created a suit, and not a jumpsuit or overalls, made of seersuckerin 1909, and was likely the best in marketing the suit but there is speculation as to the first to invent the suit. In Haspel’s mind, the seersucker crinkle meant that the fabric was pre-wrinkled and didn’t require ironing. Side Note: the company is still in business today and is run by his great-granddaughter. If you’re curious as to how the suits are made they have a brief promotional video on their site here.

The seersucker suit fabric was ideal for the humid climate of the southern United States, although considered a “poor man’s suit” by many. It would take time before it was accepted as a summer suit alternative by the masses. It gained popularity in the American South and then spread along the East Coast after World War I as a leisure suit. I imagine the same associations applied to women’s wear seersucker as did the men’s wear.

Seersucker was adopted by Ivy League students in the 20s and 30s as a less formal suit with subversive appeal. Racked Magazine called seersucker for students at Princeton “the trucker cap of the Jazz Age.”[5] As the century progressed, it became associated with more warm weather uniforms, particularly during and after the 1940s, like the nurse’s uniform below.

800px-Dunne_japon_van_roze_‘seersucker%u2019_nylon,_objectnr_25688
An example of a seersucker nurse’s uniform that became more common in the mid-20th century. ca 1950-1960s, Museum Rotterdam / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Though there are many examples like the uniform above from the 1940s and later into the century, the bodice and skirt ensemble below is the only woman’s garment made of seersucker I was able to find within the FFF timeline. I am sure more exist, but I think because seersucker was often worn while performing a difficult task in the heat, or otherwise worn in a hot and humid climate, and this would break down the construction and fibers of the garment more quickly. As it was also considered a lower-tier fabric at the outset in the United States, it would have been less likely to be preserved and cared for in the same way silk would have been. The Metropolitan Museum of Art writes about this bodice found in their collections:

“As menswear modifies the bodice of this suit to an almost military correctness, so, too, menswear also contributes the lively, practical summer material of seersucker. Its natural puckering does not disturb the stiff silhouette of the era, but may allow a meager breath of air and light color to women still constrained by corset and structure.”[6]

This likely would have been worn by a middle- to lower-class woman who needed to keep cool in the summer climate, although this may have been worn as more of a walking suit. The stylish swag of the skirt is in keeping with the styles of the 1880s dresses from that period, which would have drawn the eye upwards towards a bustle.

1880's_Dress
Much more luxurious examples of dresses with a bustle in the 1880s. Nicole.c.s.y93 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Post-FFF timeline, it seems like the fabric gained a lot of popularity for women in the 1940s. It particularly took off as a fabric for women’s light-weight military uniforms while at the same time gaining social prestige for civilians (particularly men’s suits) and was incorporated more often for women’s leisure wear. Today, seersucker is often associated with the image of the Southern gentleman, much like the image marketed in the Haspel company’s current branding.

Seersucker is a fabric that is practical by nature of its construction, but complex it terms of its origins, subversive meanings, and modern associations today.

 

-Danielle Morrin

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like these other posts: The Origins of Mackintosh and The Nurse:Uniform Attire, Practice & Florence Nightingale.

 

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[1] “Why Seersucker is the Offical Fabric of the Southern Summer,” https://www.southernliving.com/fashion-beauty/southern-fashion/seersucker-history.

[2] David Coleman, “Summer Cool of a Different Stripe,” The New York Times, April 20, 2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/20/fashion/thursdaystyles/summer-cool-of-a-different-stripe.html

[3] Małgorzata Matusiak,, Fibers and Textiles in Eastern Europe, no. 3, (135),  http://yadda.icm.edu.pl/yadda/element/bwmeta1.element.baztech-6fb42f7c-0c96-414c-b536-8ab1d25971a8

[4] Matusiak, M. and Fracczak, L. (2017), “Comfort-related properties of seersucker fabrics in dry and wet state”, International Journal of Clothing Science and Technology, Vol. 29 No. 3, pp. 366-379. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJCST-09-2016-0106

[5] John Leavitt, “Seersucker’s Curious Class Struggle,” Aug. 21, 2017, https://www.racked.com/2017/8/21/16125254/seersucker-history.

[6] Suit, American, c. 1881, cotton, 1983.44.2a, b,  https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/84116?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&ft=seersucker&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=4

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