Long before the days of air-conditioning, in-ground pools and pedestal fans, there were but a few ways to cool off. Those with means could escape to summer homes by the sea and in the mountains, but for the rest, beating the heat meant dressing the part. It’s a tactic that has stood the test of time. That’s where linen, seersucker and madras come in. You might think of these lightweight fabrics as firmly rooted in the modern preppy ethos, but their origins extend back generations—and in the case of linen, millennia.
You would be easily forgiven for thinking that madras arose from a New England outfitter. The vibrant naturally dyed cloth has long been associated with East Coast preps, but its origins extend a bit further east than our Eastern Seaboard. In fact, it is named after the town of Madras, now Chennai, in Southern India, where it was first worn by British colonialists who discovered its breathability and lightweight feel. Made from overlapping weaves of alternating colors, madras is hand-loomed and heavily regulated to protect authenticity. It was first imported to the United States in 1920 by Brooks Brothers and quickly caught on, achieving venerable status among the well-heeled in the North and South. Its array of bright colors give it unlimited styling potential (good thing our polos come in so many shades).
In 1930, Brooks increased the collective cool factor of the country when it introduced seersucker to an overheated American public. The term “seersucker” is derived from the Persian words for “milk and sugar” and refers to the alternating smooth and puckered texture of the fabric. This crinkly weave promotes breathability and the circulation of air—and prevents the fabric from sticking to you during the dog days of summer. Capitalizing on the popularity of seersucker, Brooks Brothers introduced a suit made from the cloth as part of its so-called Palm Beach Craze of 1935. More than 80 years later, seersucker has expanded to include everything from shorts to shirts and even a tuxedo (you heard that correctly).
It’s not that outlandish to say linen’s popularity reached Biblical proportions. In fact, this fabric predates the Bible and was even woven in ancient Egypt (oh hey, Cleopatra). Linen itself is actually created from the flax plant, which was abundant in the Middle East, so archaeologists have found firm evidence of the cloth dating back 5000 B.C.E. It was a favorite among men of the cloth.
Flash forward a few thousand years—and countless heat waves—and linen’s popularity endures. It, too, does not cling to the skin (take that, East Coast humidity) and dries quicker than most textiles, which also helps it cool down again. Like seersucker, it promotes—not inhibits—the circulation of air so it has a breezy feel. Those in the tropics will attest to this, but to the rest of us in a four-season climate, the linen suit (or shirt or shorts) carries a summer nostalgia. Much like the smell of a BBQ grill or fresh cut grass, the very look and feel of linen evokes positive memories.