Friday, June 13, 2014


I happened to think about this word in a roundabout sort of way. I  was sitting up late watching one of those home shopping channels, which I intermittently get addicted to without ever having the slightest compulsion to buy anything. In this case, the host was describing a piece of jewelry as having a seersucker sort of surface, which is an interesting way to talk about the surface of something that is hard and flat, and perhaps got me thinking about the word.

I knew that seersucker was a fabric, and I also knew that I would recognize it when I saw a picture of it, though I couldn't have described it without a visual aid of some sort. One thing I did suspect was that seersucker would have an unconventional etymology--that it would not just be an Anglicization of a German word, for instance, but might very well come from parts farther East. A long time ago, I did a post on dungarees in which I was surprised to learn that Wild West word hails from India, and that other fabric names, such as calico also do. So I suspected something like this for "seersucker". For once, I was right.

It doesn't have to be blue and white, or even stripes, but that's traditional.

Seersucker has made not one but two transitions from its beginnings. It came into English in 1722 (Noah Meernaum of Steampunk Empire has it that it actually started out it's life as "Seasucker") from the Hindi sirsakar, which was in turn a mispronouncing of the Persian shir o shakkar, or literally, "milk and sugar", which is a way of describing the alternately smooth and pebbled stripes of the fabric. A Wikipedia article, though has it as kheer aur shakkar, which is rice pudding and sugar, but again with the same idea of smooth and bumpy.

The reason for seersucker is that the way it is woven leads to much of the cloth, which is cotton, not lying flat against the skin, which allows for more air circulation and hence coolness. No surprise, then, that it gained popularity in the American South, which had both cotton and humidity.

A little more surprising, though, is that it made the transition from being used for laborer's clothing to becoming a fashionable fabric for trendy college students. Wikipedia has Damon Runyon saying that his new habit of wearing seersucker was "causing much confusion among my friends. They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue."

Atticus Finch wasn't really a laborer, though.

In my imitable way of being a day late and a dollar short, I have just discovered that  there is in fact something called Seersucker Thursday, in which members of the United States Senate are encouraged to dress in seersucker. Although it was instituted officially in 1996 at the request of Trent Lott, it was discontinued in 2012, because some members of the Senate found it too frivolous. But it was reinstated. Guess when?

Yesterday! Well, at least by missing the day, I can show you a good picture of the event.

Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Haspel


  1. Hooray that the Senate can get it together for once! I can't wait to see what they wear for dotted swiss day.

  2. I will have an extra incentive to stay alive so that I may live to see that day.

  3. This is fascinating.

    Seersucker was very popular for childrens' clothes in the

  4. Yes, it's very interesting how even cloth can be perceived to have a certain status--and that that can change.