seersucker lapel

It’s too hot to disagree, especially in sticky Washington. Yes, there’s a war on. Do you know someone “over there?” Well, I mean, can’t everyone just sit down, have a glass of something cold and try to be pleasant?

In this spirit, Trent Lott, the Senator-dandy from Mississippi, once again tried bringing the crinkle of Old Southern graciousness to the Capitol June 21 with Seersucker Thursday. Lott introduced this custom to the Senate when he arrived in 1996 and, despite his hideous kissup to Strom Thurmond in 2002 , it appears physical discomfort and an appetite for comic relief have a fair number of Senators playing along. Last year, even Dianne Feinstein and Hillary Clinton, not to be out-good-ol’-boyed, wore seersucker.

Summer in Louisiana
Photo: Good Mountain Press

Seersucker is woven with a peculiar combination of tight and slack threads ““ a bit of Yin/Yang — though this thin cotton originated not in ancient China (or Virginia, for that matter) but 18th century India, The strange word itself is a mangling of Hindi’s “shir shakkar,” meaning “milk and sugar,” a perfect description of the fabric’s smooth and rippled textures.

This gift for combination, and the give-and-take mentality it requires, are of course painfully absent from contemporary politics. Look around. Does it seem our leaders, and many of us followers, also, are wearing psychic woolens or wetsuits? If you’ve worn seersucker you know the sensation it provides, but you may not have known the why of it. Two kinds of looms are involved, one weaving tightly, one loosely. That shifting creates tiny ridges of bunched threads, so that (ah) the fabric is “mostly held away from the skin.” Heat dissipates, sweat evaporates, air circulates, and, one would hope, an idea may penetrate.

Seersucker used to show up everywhere every summer in Kentucky (even on the groom in our own July wedding). Now, it’s a rarity in several respects. Not only is it less commonly worn — since the military lost its monopoly on khaki, urban rappers donned camouflage and squares have helped themselves to tie dye, seersucker remains one of the very few fabrics that ““ light and comfy though it is ““ bears any cultural weight.

Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) wears a seersucker suit
defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Photo: via IMDb

Not quite sure who “they” are, but they say that the Southern gentry copped seersucker from sharecroppers. This being its lore, seersucker is imbued with some of the same “get-down” magic that once shone from blue jeans and cowboy boots. (We wonder about its supposed working-class origins, though. Just looking at the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, we note it’s Atticus Finch who wears a seersucker 3-piece; his client, Tom Robinson, played by Brock Peters, wears real work clothes — overalls.)

John White selling seersucker

The more we look and listen, the more loudly seersucker speaks mixed-up messages, choirs of them….

John White, Hattiesburg, MS,
extols the qualities of seersucker
Photo: Ryan Moore
for the Hattiesburg American

“To me, it looks like the South,” asserted John White. John owns a clothing store on South 40th Avenue in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He told reporter Rachel Leifer Norman, “It makes you think immediately about a Southern guy in his suit going to church in the summer, or pairing the pants with some white bucks and a navy blazer and heading to an afternoon wedding.”

Tina McLane, a salesperson at Ann Taylor, in Lexington, KY, says that seersucker is “Americana.” The red and white weave especially is popular around the 4th of July. Following suit, as it were, style-conscious types in England, we have learned, think seersucker conveys “a dashing transatlantic look” (presumably there are three or four English people wanting to convey that).

Seersucker strikes others as less Rhett Butler and more Barney Fife. Lois Fenton of the Memphis paper goes on full fashion defensive with her recent column “Follow these tips to avoid a nerdy look in a seersucker suit.” A.B. Snow, a delightful columnist from Raleigh, was recently crestfallen when, arriving at his family reunion in seersucker, a cousin popped, “You look like Colonel Sanders.”

Ken Herman in seersucker

Reporter Ken Herman in the suit
that provoked the White House
Photo: Austin American-Statesman

Last August, a natty dresser we know, White House reporter Ken Herman took a bunch of guff from President Bush over his “milk and sugar” ensemble. The press corps was bearing down with questions about the Iraq War, when Herman, in a brown and white seersucker suit, was recognized. Bush tried squirting attention away from several national disasters with cracks about “that just ridiculous-looking outfit.” (Maybe the president’s hyper-sensitivity has something to do with seersucker’s huge popularity at Princeton ““ and the president’s only Yale diploma.)

“I love seersucker suits, but not everyone does,” Lois Fenton, cautions. “Some rather staid offices feel they are too casual, too preppy, too devil-may-care, too ‘white-shoe’ — even too snobby.” And while we’re worrying, how about too racist, too privileged, too wrinkled? “These all have one-upsmanship business advantages,” (?) “but they may also have disadvantages that should be weighed carefully before deciding on seersucker for the office.”

Fenton — and seersucker itself — prove that that one man’s snob is another’s slob. A working class badge for one person, has, for someone else, the whiff ‘n’ poof of the Ivy League. The same suit that evokes Atticus Finch for one, yells Lester Maddox to another.

That’s what makes seersucker so provocative. It manages to carry cultural freight, but since no one quite agrees what that freight consists of, these little cotton ridges make everyone, even the guy standing behind the Presidential Seal, uneasy.

How’s this for uneasy? In early 2005 a New York company with textile factories abroad petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission to import its offshore seersucker duty free, alleging that this light cotton fabric was no longer widely available in the U.S. (The petition was denied.) At that time, the two largest U.S. makers of seersucker apparel were Russell Fabrics of Alexander City, Alabama, and Dan River Mills, in Danville, Virginia. In late 2005, Dan River closed. This article, from February 2006, and the many comments it elicited, should be compelling reading for people everywhere, including Senators on both sides of the aisle, no matter their taste in summer attire.

check seersucker

Swatch of Haspel orange/sage seersucker Photo: Haspel

“The Dan River Inc. textile mill slipped quietly under the waters of the global economy”¦. It’s hardly news when a U.S. textile mill ceases production, but this time it feels personal. Virginia-based Dan River filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in 2004, and emerged from bankruptcy a year ago, only to be purchased by an Indian firm this year….Gujarat Heavy Chemicals, which bought Dan River last month, plans to idle the Virginia mill and move the remainder of production overseas where it is cheaper.” So seersucker production returns to its homeland, in India.

While Senators Clinton, Lott, Feinstein, and their colleagues play at being sons and daughters of the Old South, maybe they could also reflect on this message from an unemployed citizen of Danville:

“I recently attended the job summit in Danville. I went there in hopes of securing work. It was uplifting with the music and words of hope, up until the part where we were allowed to meet the employers. I was so disappointed. It was more like a lure for the military, business colleges, and social programs. There were a few employers there actually offering work, such as Good Year Tire and Rubber company. They had 10 jobs that were highly skilled positions. I was allowed to give my resume to a couple, but for the most part I was directed to the temporary agencies.

Seersucker Thursday 2006

Sens. Rick Santorum (SD) and Bill Frist (TN) get fratty
on Seersucker Thursday, June 2004
Photo: via Wonkette

“Just having graduated from National College of Business and Technology, 8 months ago, I was thinking I had an edge, and that I would get a job. Sadly, I am 10k in debt now, and still no closer to finding work than I was 2 years ago. It really upsets me to hear President Bush talk about all the jobs that are being created each month, when the fact is, we are losing well paying jobs, and they are being replaced with minimum wage jobs. Dan River’s closing has destroyed so many families…in the past 24 years, I have lost 4 jobs, because the factories were closed and the work sent overseas. Danville is a dying town, and it seems none of the higher ups really even care. I realize I could probably get a job in Northern Virginia, but lets face it, it takes money to move a family there, and I mean alot of money. My prayers go out to the families of Southern Virginia.”

There are tight and slack citizens in our own neighborhood, in every town, as well as in the U.S. Senate. How about we spend the summer remembering how to give and take again, with a mind toward bringing milk and sugar back to places like Danville? We could use some seersucker about now.

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