In the land of bold, well-tailored power suits as temperatures climb, some lawmakers will stand alone — in cool, comfortable and slightly wrinkly garments — to uphold congressional tradition once again.
National Seersucker Day, an annual fashion event organized by Sen. Bill Cassidy, is back to its pre-pandemic form.
“Drop your wool suit in the summertime, and look as if you’ve adapted to the environment,” the Louisiana Republican said in a phone interview. “But also look as if you’re enjoying life — and that’s the point of the seersucker.”
Last year’s celebration at the Capitol was subdued, with Cassidy ordering face masks from New Orleans clothier Haspel and quietly distributing them at a GOP lunch.
This year calls for something more. “America wants to be something different than gloomy, wearing a mask with barbed wire around the Capitol,” Cassidy said. “Just like people are now beginning to fly and vacation, now is the time to step out a little bit.”
That’s why he plans to stride into work Thursday morning once again wearing his light blue-striped suit, enjoying its slack-tension weave. Seersucker keeps air flowing near the skin. It also marks the beginning of summer on the Hill, temporarily transforming the legislative branch into a cross between a Jazz Age lawn party, the Kentucky Derby and the olden days of Washington.
Before air conditioning, senators used to rely on lighter-colored cotton and linen garments to get them through the sweltering months. Former Mississippi GOP Sen. Trent Lott revived the tradition in the 1990s, and Cassidy took over in 2014 when he was a member of the House.
After a year of social distancing, lawmakers wearing their favorite seersucker suits (or in Cassidy’s case, his only seersucker suit) will once again squeeze together for a group photo in front of the Ohio Clock, set to be snapped at 12:30 p.m.
So far the list of lawmakers who are expected to harness what Haspel describes as the “power of the pucker” include a bipartisan and geographically diverse group of senators. Republicans Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, as well as Democratic seersucker stalwart Dianne Feinstein of California and newcomer Raphael Warnock of Georgia, are all expected to join the group, according to Cassidy’s office.
Cassidy said he never worried that the coronavirus pandemic would permanently derail the ritual, which he sees as a way to honor both Senate history and his Louisiana roots.
“As long as we have 95-degree heat in the summer, there is going to be room for seersucker,” he said. “Because really, it is about being comfortable living with your environment, and not being uncomfortable trying to fight it.”
Though the congressional holiday dates back only decades, the cloth itself dates back centuries. Like many American traditions, the textile is blended and steeped in cultural storylines that originate oceans away.
Even the word is borrowed from two Hindi words that translate to “milk” and “sugar,” a nod to the alternating smooth and rough stripes.
“It was used for centuries in India and Southeast Asia as mostly work clothing, but we know that it was imported into the United States, as many Indian textiles were in the 18th century,” said Wayne Phillips, curator of costumes and textiles at the Louisiana State Museum.
The durable and breathable cotton fabric, ideally suited for workwear, initially lacked its characteristic stripes. Those came later as manufacturers began to make dapper suits that took hold in the American South and preppy northern areas.
Phillips said companies like Haspel sent out letters to retailers around the country touting seersucker as an easily maintained southern garment.
Legend has it that once Joseph Haspel himself walked into the ocean at a Florida convention fully dressed in his seersucker suit to show off its washability.
“I’m not 100 percent sure that that’s true, but that is a legendary story that has gone down in time,” Phillips said.
The marketing worked, and seersucker became a symbol of old-school Southern style — both breezy and stuffy at the same time.
“I don’t know that you’re ever going to see a lot of Wall Street business leaders wearing seersucker suits on the floor of the stock market,” he said. “And maybe that’s to their disadvantage. Maybe they would be really comfortable if they knew the benefits of this flexible and comfortable fabric.”
As a member of a legislative body steeped in traditions, Cassidy pushed back on the idea that dressing up in the fabric for a photo could be seen as corny or quaint. He said it’s important to uphold the annual milestones, especially as the U.S. continues to recover after the pandemic, and even keep a few items in the chamber to hark back to the old days of the Senate.
“I am all for traditions,” he said. “I even tolerate spittoons on the floor, even though no one ever uses a spittoon anymore.”