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Don't be a suit wimp!


Practically Family
San Diego
I thought that in these (for most of you) gray January days it might be nice to pull out a couple summer suit articles I've had sitting around.

First, the suit wimp.

Once upon a time, back when men wore hats, they also wore summer suits. And I don’t mean those ubiquitous blue-pinstripe suits that are made of tropical wool but still convey the chilly, mid-winter “dark suit” look that connotes seriousness and, let’s be honest, boredom.

No, I mean real summer suits—seersucker, white linen, a light windowpane. The kind of suit that suggests sipping mint juleps on the veranda or Campari in a Roman piazza. I have a closet full of such suits, acquired over the years. They look pretty good, actually. But I never, ever wear them.
Try wearing anything light-colored this summer and I promise that you will regret it. I have a double-breasted white linen suit that I bought in Beirut 25 years ago when I aspired to look like a Lebanese fixer (or better, his bodyguard). Every few years I wear it somewhere, but I just get guffaws. People ask me for ice cream cones.

Ah, a classic case of being worn by a suit instead of wearing a suit. The confident man can wear white linen and look fine. The timid man will look like he's in a costume. The confident man will shrug off jokes as the babblings of the uncouth.

But what if you're suit oppressed?

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?
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.”

This is something to remember, those of you who feel somewhat out of place in your workplaces when you put on a tie and jacket - if a tie is more formal than they're used to, you don't have to worry about your suit being too informal.

Anyway, I thought you all might just enjoy a couple thoughts on the summer suit. I've only got two, a light beige linen and classic blue seersucker, but I do love them and never feel like I owe anyone an apology or explanation.*

*keep in mind the only full-time job I've had had a rather strict dress code so I haven't had to deal with office prejudices


One of the Regulars
Capital Region (Vienna, VA)
Love it.

I may be in DC now but I still wear my seersucker and poplins as I did when I lived in NOLA. Sometimes seersucker really is a little too casual for the meetings but for the most part it fits right in.

Someone can fill in here if they know but I do believe there are a couple of "seersucker days" on the Hill each summer. I have gone to the Cantina on a couple of happy hours to find 5 or 12 others sporting the same suiting and tie color combos. Interesting viewing to say the least.


London, UK
I've become a real sucker for that traditional Summer yachting look - white or ivory trews, navy blazer.... always loved linen. At the end of last Summer, I purchased a black linen two-piece (with second pair of trousers), a very flexible alternative for formal situations in the Summer months (such as July graduations, when I process and sit on the platform with faculty) which do require a darker hued suit. I do have a few options in lighter linen or cotton too. I actually plan to pick up a few more cotton suits over time. Seersucker is on the list.... I'm not sure about the trousers, but I certainly love the jackets. I'm also currently developing the notion for a powder-blue, 40s-cut db in cotton/poplin....

Richard Warren

Practically Family
Bay City
You should not judge the suit wimp too harshly for his self-avowed cowardice. Being an veteran of the Washington Post, he is undoubtedly only creating a narrative (that is to say, making most of what he writes up, and exaggerating the rest).


Call Me a Cab
I'd be curious to know if seersucker was ever applied to any more exciting styles, such as belted backs. Perhaps the fabric would be considered too busy for such intricate tailoring jobs? I know I have seen original and repro seersucker 50's slacks that look great. But 30's pleated pockets and fancy backs...? (by the way - love that term Rob!)

Sam Craig

One Too Many
Great Bend, Kansas
PTL for small towns

One of the great things about small town life is that, once it's past, say, 80, no one expects you to wear a shirt and tie, let alone a suit.

Summer is for Hawaiian shirts and panama's.

Bring it on! The "high" here today is about 7:eusa_clap


I'll Lock Up
Iowa - The Land That Stuff Forgot
I am sick as hell of having to hear about, or indeed even THINK about, the attitudes of people like those Ignatius describes. Exaggerated or not, they get in my craw.

Admittedly, Washington is a stylistically conservative town in any political climate, but having to ignore the weather - anywhere - goes beyond questions of what's proper.

There is no respectable or legitimate reason for light-colored suits to be stereotyped as some sort of high-faluting affectation for fops and fuddy-duddies. He's absolutely right that men ought to have the right to wear lighter colors, and that suits ought to be more than a uniform of formalism, but a way of dressing.

I recall then-Senator Obama dressing in tan or light grey on some campaign stops in '08, and I personally was glad to see him do it. I can't recall whether he's been allowed that luxury since being President.

How ironic that as the dress code gets sloppier over all, the code of formality actually gets more limited and more limiting. If you have to look like you're cooking alive to be Serious, then something is seriously wrong with the meaning of Serious.


Practically Family
Cincinnati OH
Heaven help me, I'd love to wear something other than charcoal gray wool every day, but I'm one of those unfortunates who does toil away in a mortuary...I can't even wear a button down collar on my solid white shirt, and if I ever wore something other than black lace-up shoes I suspect the world would stop spinning. I can't even wear a fun tie, mine are all somber and subdued.


Practically Family
Hurricane Coast Florida
Washington, they only dress so they don't get arrested for going around naked.

Many years ago I had a job in a boiler room. No, there weren't any furnaces, there were rows of desks with phones and our job was to call people with expired magazine and newspaper subscriptions and persuade them to re-subscribe.

For a while I sat next to a woman who told me that she was a Fashion Institute of Technology grad. At the time, I must have thought it was a trade school. I didn't realize that it is a prestige program. She once remarked, "People in Washington only dress so they don't get arrested." I thought is was a funny remark and it has stayed with me for more than thirty years.

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