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Summer is seersucker's shining moment

By Ann Hoevel, CNN
updated 1:13 PM EDT, Wed August 7, 2013
Fashion experts agree: Seersucker has moved into the modern era, and seersucker suits and separates are the coolest clothes a man can wear in the summer. Fashion experts agree: Seersucker has moved into the modern era, and seersucker suits and separates are the coolest clothes a man can wear in the summer.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frumpy, boxy seersucker is out, tailored seersucker is in.
  • Men are boldly experimenting in fashion, using seersucker in new ways
  • Haspel and Brooks Brothers helped popularize the cool fabric

(CNN) -- The seersucker suit is having a moment.

Recently worn by the likes of Jay Z, Kanye West, and Leonardo DiCaprio (as designed by Brooks Brothers in the movie "The Great Gatsby"), seersucker has jumped out of its humble beginnings and into the modern dandy's closet.

And if you think seersucker will make you look like Colonel Sanders, Trent Lott or some preppie named Biff, it's time to think again.

The hip hop world and famous athletes are leading the modern seersucker movement, said Esquire's fashion market editor Nic Screws. Instead of wearing a frumpy seersucker suit, these men are tailoring their summer wear to show off their physique, she said.

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"I think seersucker is always having a moment during the hot months," she said. "The reason it seems like a trend is that menswear (now) has guys upping their game."

Men have become bolder in their fashion experimentation, Screws said, and are now willing to take on a fabric that is fashionably more advanced than chino or denim. This season's advances with seersucker include shoes, bags and belts, she said.

Menswear "is a lot more aspirational than it's been in a long time," she said over the phone from Esquire's 80th anniversary October cover photo shoot.

Seersucker is one of a handful of fabrics -- like denim and jersey -- that has cultivated a distinctly American identity. Even though the fabric has ancient roots in Persia and India -- its name derived from a phrase that translates as "milk and sugar" -- it has been used to outfit men (and women) up and down the U.S. East and Gulf coasts for more than a century, according to Brooks Brothers' in-house historian, Kelly Nickel.

In America, seersucker started out as a blue-collar fabric, used by service staff and factory workers to cope with soaring temperatures in and out of pre-air conditioned buildings. But an interesting social phenomenon happened in the 1920s, thanks to the advent of the seersucker suit, as popularized by Ivy Leaguers and high society men outfitted in Haspel and Brooks Brothers.

Haspel of New Orleans lays a claim to originating the seersucker suit, circa 1909. Joseph Haspel had a business producing seersucker overalls for Louisiana factory workers at the turn of the 20th century, when he put his sewing skills into a practical and stylish suit. In a flamboyant sales pitch, Haspel wore his seersucker suit to the beach, jumped into the ocean and was dry by dinner, said his great granddaughter and current president of the company Laurie Aronson.

"We're the originators, not the imitators," she said. "Haspel still does it best."

Brooks Brothers started selling seersucker suits in the 1920s, said Nickel. While the origin of the seersucker suit may lay with Haspel, Brooks Brothers is the one who popularized it, she said.

Both companies' classic takes on the seersucker suit have left an indelible impression in this country about what a seersucker suit should look like.

The most iconic image of the outfit comes in the form of Gregory Peck's turn as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film "To Kill a Mockingbird." While defending field hand Tom Robinson, Finch wears a three-piece seersucker suit in a hot courtroom.

Aronson's grandfather personally fitted Peck in a Haspel suit for the role.

That iconic look, said Screws, is all about nipping and tucking in the right places. "It's about showing off your waist, having the right length, showing a little bit of sock, showing a little bit of ankle, making sure you have the right amount of cuff hanging out of your jacket," she said.

The 1980s helped develop the association of seersucker with Northeastern preppies, said Nickel. The look emphasized seersucker in a pastel rainbow of colors, even as plaid, festooned with outrageously colored socks and polo shirts.

Author Tom Wolfe's "go to hell pants" epitomized the brazen use of seersucker in this fashion movement.

When Trent Lott organized "Seersucker Thursdays" in the Senate in 1990s, plenty of senators -- men and women -- joined in the tradition.

Billy Reid, a Southern gentleman and fashion designer based in Florence, Alabama, prefers the classic approach.

"I prefer to keep it simple," Reid said. "Solid shirts and subtle ties, belts and shoes that compliment not scream out. The seersucker is a enough to make your statement."

"Seersucker is not something that whispers," Nickel said.

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