Lighten Up:

Rediscovering The Summer Suit


July 23, 2009

Novelist and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius blogged at the Daily Beast this week in praise of summer suits. “Long Live the Seersucker” was the headline, with a subhead that promised Mr. Ignatius was championing “a revival of cream-colored linen and balmy pinfeather.” It begins well enough, with Mr. Ignatius crowing that he has “a closet full of such suits.” But then he admits he’s embarrassed to wear them. When dressed in white linen, “people ask me for ice cream cones.” As much as he would love to escape the “permanent sartorial winter” that is the wearing of dark suits, he lacks the courage to do so.


What a shame—a shame that a man who writes thrillers should be so easily cowed by convention. But the real shame is the modern prejudice against summer suits, an attitude that has hardened as men’s clothes have been bifurcated into two extremes: the dark formality of the business suit and the hypercasual mufti of T-shirts and shorts. The habit of wearing suits used to be such a natural part of grown-up life that men could bring variety and personality to the workaday get-up. Now, to the extent men think about their clothes, they tend to focus on fine-tuning the weekend rigs of perpetual adolescence. The summer suit, correct but easy-going, presents a rare opportunity to bridge the gap. It’s bad enough to beaver away at the office when the beach and boats beckon; do we have to do it dressed like undertakers?


Having a distinct summer wardrobe was once the mark of a man in the know. The term “white shoe” for describing a socially secure firm derives from the WASPy habit of wearing chalked bucks in the summer. Joseph Heller in his novel “Something Happened” describes a salesman whose job is in jeopardy because “he has no tone,” evidenced by his clueless clothes—tweed or worsted in the dog days when everyone else is wearing seersucker.


Seersucker and white linen do still have a robust following in the Spanish moss states. But the Southern connotations of pale-colored suits have been a hurdle for Yankees, who can’t figure out whether they evoke Atticus Finch or Boss Hogg. Another difficulty is discerning whether seersucker, inexpensive cloth that it is, suggests penury or wealth. Writer Damon Runyon took to seersucker in the 1940s and his friends thought he was going broke. He set them straight: “Only very rich men ever wear seersucker clothes.” And thus he concluded: “Runyon, what is good enough for a financial giant is good enough for you.”


But these days air conditioning has made it possible to scoff at summer, and that has made the suits of the season risky. Consider the photo, on the front page of Tuesday’s Journal, of the Apollo 11 astronauts visiting the White House this week. There is the great moon-walking American Neil Armstrong in khaki poplin, perfectly suited for Washington in July. But he’s oddly out of place surrounded by the dark woolens of Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Barack Obama.

The White House wasn’t always locked into such formal suiting. In June 1945, Harry Truman met the press to tout how well the peace was going to go with our pals the Soviets. His summer suit conveyed that he was in control: “The confident man in the White House,” reported Time magazine, “cool in a blue seersucker suit and soft-collared white shirt, was optimistic.” (If only the optimism had been warranted.)


It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who made seersucker a Washington mainstay, and he took advantage of the cloth’s ability to bridge high and low, wearing seersucker suits on road trips across the Dust Bowl. Not that there weren’t complaints. One day in August of 1940, FDR sat for some press pictures. “He’s looking wonderful,” said a photographer who griped: “Only trouble was that darn seersucker suit. The pictures won’t look very dressy.”


But that’s the very opportunity presented by summer suits for men, a way to avoid being dressy without tumbling down into abject sloppiness. Mr. Obama knows he can’t wear his impeccable dark suits for every occasion—Richard Nixon famously made that mistake, strolling the beach in black wingtips and navy worsted—but beyond that uniform, Mr. Obama isn’t quite sure what to wear. The less said about the president’s unfortunate blue jeans at the All Star Game, the better.


Too many men wear their suits the way waiters wear their bad tuxedos, as something alien and apart from the clothes they wear when given a choice. The admirable efforts to rescue American men from the infantilizing curse of the hypercasual are never going to get anywhere as long as suits are seen as an arbitrary and foreign costume. Summer suits are part of the solution, a way to prove that one can be relaxed in a jacket. Linen, poplin, or seersucker breaks the suffocating and stultifying uniform out of its dull uniformity.


That said, there are some job sites at which a year-round uniform of inky formality is not only appropriate but demanded, among them mortuaries and certain Wall Street banks. Fresh out of Harvard Business School in 1947, John C. Whitehead took a job at Goldman Sachs, where one was expected to wear one’s jacket all day long, even in the heat of an office that lacked not only air conditioning but windows. Tired of broiling, Mr. Whitehead bought himself some seersucker. “I felt quite snappy,” he recounts in his memoir, “A Life in Leadership.” Wearing his summer suit for the first time, he sprang into the company elevator only to find himself with “one of the great eminences at the firm,” Walter Sachs.


“Good morning, young man,” the whitebeard said. “Do you work at Goldman Sachs?”


“Why yes, sir, I do,” replied Mr. Whitehead, pleased to have been noticed.


“In that case,” Sachs scowled, “I would suggest that you go home right now and change out of your pajamas.”