Though popularized beginning in 1909 by New Orleans merchant Joseph Haspel, the seersucker suit has also long been closely associated with another Southern city: Washington, D.C. The puckered, lightweight cotton fabric—which derives its name from “shir o shakka,” Persian for “milk and sugar”—possesses qualities that are tailor-made for politicians, whether they’re on the campaign trail or enduring swampy capital summers. It’s naturally rumpled and helps repel humidity.
The material is so well-suited to Washington, D.C., that in 1996, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott began the annual tradition of celebrating Seersucker Thursday on a warm day each June. His goal, according to the Senate Historical Office? To show that “the Senate isn’t just a bunch of dour folks wearing dark suits and—in the case of men—red or blue ties.” By 2004, women had joined the fashion show thanks to California Senator Dianne Feinstein. “I remember when Senator Trent Lott started National Seersucker Day in 1996 in an effort to encourage collegiality,” Feinstein says. “I was glad to play a small part then in getting the Senate women involved.”
Prior to 1996, Seersucker Thursdays were an informal summer practice in the Senate. Records of the fabric’s appearance on the floor date back to the mid-1800s. “You can read newspaper stories about senators wearing seersucker suits because the capital was ridiculously hot,” says Daniel Holt, Senate Historical Office assistant historian. With the advent of air conditioning in the 1950s, seersucker’s popularity began to wane. Another sucker punch may have been the dawn of televised politics. In 1986, the Senate voted for live TV and radio coverage of its proceedings. According to The Los Angeles Times, a memo on dress and behavior from Senate Radio-Television Recording Studio titled “Hints and Clues” outlined the best way to dress for TV. New Orleans’ signature summer fabric was not ready for prime time: “Striped seersucker suits and striped shirts are really bad,” the memo read. With its fine stripes, the fabric can create a blurry moiré pattern on video or film.
Lott’s seersucker revival lasted until 2012. “Some say you don’t want to make it look like the Senate’s being jovial with all these serious things going on,” a then-retired Lott told a columnist from The Washington Post. “My view is you can’t get serious things done because you don’t have events where you can enjoy each other’s company.”
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The Senate had a strong and stylish showing today on #NationalSeersuckerDay! I always look forward to this fun tradition, which unofficially started in the Senate back in the early 1900s when senators from the South wore their #seersucker to keep cool during the summer months. In 1996, former Senator Trent Lott from Mississippi made it official by designating Thursdays in the summer as “Seersucker Thursday,” and the tradition has continued ever since. Happy #SeersuckerDay!
That’s one of the reasons why Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy revived Seersucker Thursdays in 2014—and even took the celebration a step further, reintroducing it as National Seersucker Day so that the practice could spread beyond the Senate. Today, June 13, marks the sixth (re-tailored) National Seersucker Day.
“Seersucker is a unique American invention. It’s so practical, I think it should be celebrated,” says Cassidy, who before he entered politics was more accustomed to wearing scrubs as a gastroenterologist. “I’m always a little struck on a warm, humid day in Washington, D.C., when I see people wearing heavy wool suits. Why would you not wear something light and breezy?” He’s also quick to counter those who might deem Seersucker Day frivolous. “I think National Seersucker Day has a lighthearted tone with a serious message: Let’s celebrate American ingenuity. Let’s live again in harmony with the atmosphere and the environment. And let’s enjoy the clothes we wear.”