As the U.S. Senate (and the world) celebrates National Seersucker Day on Thursday, Washington seems to have finally warmed up to the cool, puckered summer fabric that has a storied history in the nation’s capital.
The Southern staple originated in 1907 when a New Orleans merchant began searching for a lighter-weight suit that could withstand the summer heat, humidity and sweat. The blue and white fabric was born, named “Seersucker” from the Persian for “milk and sugar” in homage to its textured weave.
According to the Senate historian, the suits became popular in the Capitol in the early part of the 20th century — an easy sell in the former swamp that is the District of Columbia. But as air conditioning began to be installed, its popularity dropped off.
Enter former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. In the late 1990s, the Senate Republican revived the fashion by designating a warm day in the middle of June to be Seersucker Thursday. “The Senate isn’t just a bunch of dour folks wearing dark suits and — in the case of men — red or blue ties,” Lott said.
In 2004, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein jumped on board to encourage the Senate’s female members to participate, proving it wasn’t just a regional phenomenon. “I would watch the men preening in the Senate,” she said, “and I figured we should give them a little bit of a horse race.”
But the drumbeat wouldn’t last. In 2012, on the eve of the annual tradition, Senate cloakroom staff told members the custom was being discontinued because other members “thought it would be politically unwise to be seen doing something frivolous when there’s so much conflict over major issues,” according to the Washington Post.
Lott, who has since left Congress and is now a lobbyist, fired back. “Some say you don’t want to make it look like the Senate’s being jovial with all these serious things going on. My view is you can’t get serious things done because you don’t have events where you can enjoy each other’s company,” he told the Post.
In 2014, then-Louisiana GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy led the charge to restart the tradition. In bipartisan fashion, Feinstein sounded the drumbeat in the Senate.
In a statement this year, Cassidy, now a senator, said “seersucker is more than fabric — it’s a symbol of American made products that create manufacturing, shipping and sales jobs across the country. It is also the melding of fashion with comfort. Seersucker was invented in Louisiana but now belongs to all Americans. I am proud to further a Congressional tradition.”
Not all politicians have taken up the fashion with the same verve. In 2013, a Missouri state senator added an amendment to a bill that would ban citizens above the age of 8 from wearing seersucker suits “because adults look ridiculous in seersucker suits.” He later withdrew the amendment claiming “it was all in jest, anyway.”
Full disclosure: The author is a native Southerner, owns many articles of seersucker clothing, and was proudly wearing her own seersucker suit while writing this.