Seersucker Suits and Short Pants

Figure 1.--Little boys play suits were available in seersucker during the 1930s and 40s. Here one is pictured from a 1942 ad in an overall style for boys 2-6 years. The ad stresses that no ironing wasnecessary.

Seersucker was used for summer work clothes in America. The material became popular in America during the 1930s for suits. It is generally associated with summer wear. I do not believe it was commonly worn in Britain or Europe. Seersucker short pants were worn by boys from the 1930s through the 60s.


Seersucker is an all cotton fabric.


Cotton is the prototype opposite of the modern synthetic fibers. The first record of cotton cloth is from the Indus Valley culture of India, around 2000 B.C. , although cotton textiles have also been found in pre-inca graves in Peru and in the tombs of ancient Egypt. Europeans first discovered the fabric through their trade with the East. Crusaders brought home gossamer cottons as part of the spoils of war and eventually began the trade expeditions to India and China, where some of the world's best cotton is still to be found. Columbus saw cotton in the Bahamas and erroneously believed he had discovered the long-sought sea-route to India. Magellan found extensive cotton cultivation in Brazil. Methodical cotton textile manufacture in the West began in the 17th century, and mercantilism made it a thriving industry, particularly in Britain where subsequent inventions such as Hargreaves's spinning jenny (1764) and Arkwright's power loom (1785) helped lay the foundations for the great Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

In the New World cotton was one of the first staple crops considered acceptable for export by Virginia settlers, and later, after 1793 when the New Englander Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin-that famous machine that tremendously reduced the man-hours of labor involved in separating the cotton seeds from the boll-the whole economy of the American South was profoundly changed. "King Cotton" established sociological patterns of both rural South and industrial North that existed for generations and eventually led to the terrible, bloody Civil War. Cotton was the pribipal crop fueling the expansion of the South's plantation economy. Homesick soldiers of Dixie often took strength and consolation from singing of how they wished they "were in the land of cotton, where old times were not forgotten".


The cotton fabric we have come to identify with our summer suiting was first woven in India, the name seersucker being a Hindi corruption of a Persian phrase, "shir shakkar," which translates as "milk and sugar." Conceivably this etymology is meant to explain the alternating rough and smooth textures of the stripes, the distinctive feature of the cloth.

The alternating textures are produced by what is called slack-tension weaving. In slack-tension production alternating fibers are held under normal tension, while intervening ones are kept slack; the resulting fabric has a pattern of puckered and flat stripes that is permanent and intrinsic. Garments made of seersucker fabric are persistently puckered, and ironing becomes rather superfluous. This makes it not only seersucker's distinguishing characteristic but its greatest virtue as well. One doesn't worry about wrinkles because the stuff is permanently wrinkled, which, when it comes to the problem of what to wear in hot and humid climes, presents a solution near to genius

The Wrinkled Look

Back in the 1960s cotton farmers took something of a beating when the synthetics fabric industry managed to convince a large number of people that a wrinkle-free appearance was the prime sartorial criterion. The designer ilk, led by the resourceful Italians, countered by flaunting a corrugated look. The space beneath the name on the label carried the ironically chic phrase "Guaranteed to Wrinkle," cotton became a terribly upscale fiber, and it became possible to theorize that all human life was divided between those who found the shiny, slippery, wrinkle-free stuff a boon to their appearances and those who would rather look like unmade beds. In that quarter, "natural" was a word to die for.

Unfortunately for the cotton industry, however, synthetic fabrics continued to grow in popularity. From roughly 1960 to 1970 cotton's share of the fiber market was reduced by half, from 60 to 30 percent. Many farmers who had made their living growing cotton converted to soybeans and grain. Lately the natural-fiber industries (silk, wool, cotton, linen) have been vigorously fighting to turn folks away from the synthetics. The Wool Bureau, for example, in the 1990s has increased its advertising spending, in the face of increased promotional efforts by its competition, manufacturers of synthetic fibers. The reality is that while natural fibers accounted for 70 per cent of all textile fiber business in 1960, in the 1990s-even after the much hyped "cachet" resurgence started by the designers-it accounts for just under 40 percent.

We could say that unwrinkled clothing represents some sort of aesthetic ideal, to be sure. Still, seersucker's appeal would tend to contradict, and make us fall back on sociology. Wrinkled clothing (understood by, say, Thorstein Veblen and his followers) can of course bespeak a slovenly person, just as unwrinkled and clean clothes were thought by the Victorians to be next to godliness. But unwrinkled clothing can also be interpreted as a symbolic message that the wearer is wealthy to the point of not having to crease his clothes by manual labor, and you could say that all of those products and all of the advertising geared toward promoting wrinkle-free figures cater to some sort of bourgeois ideal and represent an auxiliary part of the "white-collar" syndrome. Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption (as laid out in his Theory of the Leisure Class, first published in 1899) can nicely be applied here. The problem is that with the invention and popularity of inexpensive synthetics, a wrinkle-free appearance is no longer an aristocratic ideal.

Work Clothes

Science has, in short, made it necessary to change the rules of fashion, even though the underlying principle remains the same. Particularly in a consumer-oriented society, that which is most expensive is most highly prized; and even in a democracy, if something is easily achievable by everyone, it loses its cachet. Until the 1920s seersucker was still considered work-clothes-type fabric, worn by manual laborers in the South.


When university men began wearing seersucker, the fabric gained status rapidly, first on campus, then at the country club. And today, as it becomes even more expensive (the summer seersucker-type suits that are blends of cotton and polyester sell for about half the price of an all-cotton one), seersucker-the all-natural, guaranteed-to-look-about-as-wrinkled-as-you-can-be-is recognized as a monarch of summer suiting.

The only thing that's changed about the seersucker suit over the past 50 years has been the price. In the 1930s the two-piece, single breasted, 100 per cent cotton classic sold for around $15. After the Second World War, Brooks Brothers raised its price from that figure to a whopping $18.50, and the price has been rising ever since. Today Brooks gets around $200 for their traditional blue-white or gray-white striped patch-pocketed model-which I reckon is still not an unreasonable amount to pay for a classic, along with the assurance that it hasn't been meddled with or cheapened. Not to mention that you could go over it with a divining rod and not find any polyester. Which, as it happens, is one reason why the price of a 100 percent cotton seersucker suit will continue to rise.

I do not believe that seersucker suits were common for boys. Searsucker was not commonly worn in Europe. In America during the 1930s boys did not have extensive wardrobes as they do now. Except for boys in the South, many boys would not have a special summer suit. Some well to do boys in the South, however, would have had searsucker suits.

Trousers and Pants


I do not believe that boys commonly wore long seersucker trousers. Older boys might have had long seersucker trousers as part of a suit.


I do not believe that seersucker was commonly used for knickers.

Short pants

Seecksucker was used for boys' short pants. As searsucker was a commonly worn summer fabric, it was a logical material for summer shorts. This was especially true in the South. I'm not sure when this fashion began. It was presumably the 1930s. I know they were worn by boys in the 1940s and 50s. Various styles were available from suits to playclothes, some in a kind of coverall fashion.

Older boys began wearing shorts, usually Bermudas in the 1960s. These shorts were made of many materials, but chinos, Madras, and seersucker were some of the most popular. Synthetic fibers and denim have dominated boys clothing in more recent years and searsucker has not been a material commonly used for boys' shorts.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: November 30, 1998
Last updated: November 30, 1999