Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Sartorial Sleuth - Seersuckers and Sazeracs

Shir o Shekar, the Persian phrase for milk and sugar – say it fast enough, soften up those r’s, throw in a slight drawl, and it starts to phonetically blend into one sweet sounding word, seersucker. Yes seersucker, that ubiquitous southern suit material that makes fat men look slim and tall men look gigantic. Pale blue and white stripes alternate in a soldiered pattern, due north-south, into the classic Deep South attire.

Why, you ask, do southern men insist on wearing this vestige of poverty? Well…it’s a matter of practicality. When the thermometer strains near its upper extent and the hygrometer drips condensate, unable to measure above 100, even the gentlest wool blend will send the heartiest man tilting for conditioned air.  

I worked an assignment in New Orleans years ago, last of July first of August, camped out in the Quarter. The job demanded two weeks of research and interviews in the hottest, most humid city in the country. Now, I love New Orleans, but I did not at the time fully understand the pain that the Crescent City can inflict on a man in a suit in the sweltering, never-ending, afternoons of late summer.

I strolled into a lawyer's office soaked to the bone, embarrassed, and about to pass out. The young receptionist looked up from her Robicheaux novel and eyed me with pity. “Aww sweetie,” she said, “you got on the wrong suit.”

Nobody told me. I was young. Standing there in a puddle of sweat, I sheepishly peeled my dark brown suit coat off to reveal a formerly pale blue shirt, now dark blue, nearly the color of rivers you don’t find in Louisiana.

She offered me—at three o’clock in the afternoon—a mint julep, or an ice-tea. I took both, along with a white terrycloth towel to mop my head and neck. I gulped the tea, gulped the julep, asked for more tea, and downed another julep. It was there in the artificial chill of the one glass tower in New Orleans that I received my first lesson in the sartorial anomalies of the Deep South.

“Don’t wear that suit again.” she said. “Go out this afternoon and pick you up a poplin or a seersucker,” she said. “Do it. Don’t worry bout the sweat, that’s just gonna happen.”

The attorney I was to meet swaggered his way down the hall towards the reception area, mint julep, large mint julep, in hand. He wore the most astonishing assuredness. His white shirt, still damp up the front, across the chest, under the arms, looked somehow crisp. His soft yellow tie was loosed just a bit. But his seersucker pants, that’s what caught my attention, blue and white stripes terminating both top and bottom into mid-tan leather. Fantastic, I thought. Fantastic.

It’s summer in Tennessee again. Cicadas, after thirteen quiet years, have emerged to sing their undulating song. The hygrometer shimmers in a turgid, almost angry way. Clouds boil up, threaten, and then dissipate. The air is, as my grandmother used to say, thick.

I’ve packed my wool for the winter, never wanting to hear that phrase, “you got on the wrong suit,” again. My poplin odd jacket is the go to for the next several months. I’m still looking for that perfect seersucker suit, though.

My plan is to find one by next Wednesday, the first of June. That’s right, the first Wednesday of the month, Patterson House time.  We’ll be sitting on the back porch, cocktails in hand, poplin or seersucker all around. Bow ties are still encouraged, but this month the theme is Seersuckers and Sazeracs. Join us if you can.

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