Exploring Summer Fabrics

After an unseasonably rainy and cool June here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, warmer and dryer weather arrived when the calendar flipped to July which allowed me to delve into my summer wardrobe.

Until this year, I had never really thought of the summer as a season for fashion. For most of my life summer was a season for cargo shorts, tee shirts (often graphic tees), and sandals. Very basic, very unoriginal, and very clueless dad.

This began to change ever since I started my sartorial journey a couple of years ago and lost some weight. My newfound confidence in myself easily translated to putting a lot more thought into my wardrobe.

For this summer I started thinking a bit more about warm weather appropriate fabrics like linen, madras, and seersucker and how to work these into my daily outfits.

I also decided that this would be a “preppy summer.” I’ve grown increasingly interested in the Ivy/Preppy style (especially after listening to Avery Trufelman’s excellent “American Ivy” series on her “Articles of Interest” podcast) and I wanted to incorporate the style into my summer looks.

Let’s start with linen.

It’s a lightweight, breathable fabric perfect for hotter days. The only problem with linen is that it wrinkles very easily making it a high maintenance fabric. That’s why a lot of linen garments are blended with cotton or synthetic materials.

I already owned a couple of linen pieces before this summer, but I found that I do not wear them very often. I have two long-sleeve linen shirts from Peter Millar that I picked up on Poshmark a couple of years ago. I wore one of them back in May (you can see it poking beneath my blazer) but not really since then. I’m not sure why – I don’t love the way they fit and I’mnot sure I love the pattersns. However, there is a chance I’ll wear it more once I get back into the classroom in August when I will need to wear more button up shirts.

I also have a white linen blend suit from Perry Ellis that I picked up two years ago when Mrs. Professor Sartorial and I renewed our vows with an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas. The suit is a slimmer cut and I’ve gained a little weight since then so I haven’t worn it much – but I did manage to wear the jacket when we celebrated our anniversary in June. I honestly didn’t like the way it fit anymore so I didn’t post it to Instagram.

This summer I wanted to incorporate a little more linen in my wardrobe. I like the look of drawstring linen pants – they have this very casual and relaxed look that instantly makes me think of evenings after a full day at the beach. I found a pair from Nautica that seemed to fit the bill. I’ve worn them pretty regularly this summer and I like that I can match them with my patterned button up shirts. It’s a great look for summer evenings or days when the heat isn’t too sweltering. Here I am wearing it in Washington, D.C. paired with another one of my new summer favorites, a silk Kahala Hawaiian shirt I picked up on eBay.

I don’t know if I’ll be adding any more linen to my wardrobe this summer, but I’ve had my eye on this Baird McNutt Irish Linen shirt from J. Crew.

Next up is madras.

Madras is a woven cotton fabric originating in the Chennai region of India with a long and interesting history. The madras that most people wear today typically has a plaid pattern and is associated with the Ivy/Preppy style.

It became very popular in the United States in the twentieth century when wealthy vacationers to the British-controlled island of Bermuda brought clothes made from the fabric back with them and started wearing it on their Ivy League campuses as a status symbol. Pretty soon American retailers like Brooks Brothers caught on and started offering clothes made from the fabric. Failure to relay washing instructions to its customers led to lots of complaints about the fabric bleeding (due to the use of vegetable dyes and oils). Brooks Brothers, with the help of Madison Avenue, decided to spin the bleeding fabric from a vice to a virtue and launched its famous “guaranteed to bleed” campaign – and now “bleeding madras” became a preppy classic.

I first encountered the term in the lyrics to the song M79 by uber-preppy band Vampire Weekend but never really understood the reference until I started researching madras this year.

Today you can get madras plaid shirts, shorts, trousers, jackets, belts, hats, ties, and shoes. Any preppy retailer worth their salt carries pieces made from madras. Try Brooks Brothers, J. Press, J. Crew, and of course Ralph Lauren.

When shopping for madras look for a few things:

  1. True madras cloth is made in India – look for a label on the inside indicating that it is authentic Indian madras.
  2. It should have the same design inside and out.
  3. Since it’s handwoven you should be able to see small flaws in the weave.
  4. Washing instructions should say to wash it in cold separately on the gentle cycle to prevent it from turning your whites pink. Authentic madras bleeds!

Until this summer I owned nothing in madras plaid but I knew I wanted something. I found myself drawn to patchwork madras where cuts of different madras patterns are sewn together – to me this is a classic preppy look that just screams “summer in Nantucket” (I’ve never been to Nantucket but I have been to Block Island, Nantucket’s less glamorous cousin in Rhode Island where I went to grad school).

So I picked up some Ralph Lauren patchwork madras shorts on Poshmark for $26 plus shipping. I’ve worn them several times this summer, including to an Orioles game in Baltimore (Let’s Go O’s!) where I paired them with a vintage Cal Ripken shirtsey I also picked up on Poshmark. Because the patchwork plaid is so busy it needs to be paired with a solid shirt – I particularly like the way solid polo shirts look with them.

I plan on continuing to build my madras collection going forward. I love the look of this patchwork blazer from J. Press, this patchwork madras short sleeve shirt in washed cotton madras from Brooks Brothers, this patchwork madras long sleeve shirt from J. Crew, and this madras sport coat in indigo from Ralph Lauren.

Finally let’s talk about seersucker.

Seersucker conjures certain images like drinking a mint julep at the Kentucky Derby or fanning yourself with a hat while sitting on a porch in New Orleans. There’s a reason it’s so popular in the south – it’s a lightweight and breathable fabric that comes in a unique puckered or bumpy texture which allows air to pass through and keep the wearer cool. The bumpiness comes from a technique known as “slack tension” weaving, where there are two warp threads with one being pulled tighter than the other.

Legend has it that the word “seersucker” is derived from the Persian words for “milk and sugar” and it was probably brought to India by the Mughal Dynasty. Like madras, this fabric has a connection to the British empire because colonial officials began to wear it in tropical climates after encountering it in India. It made its way to the US south in the mid-19th century. Eventually by the 1920s and 1930s seersucker began to appear on campuses in the northeast, where it became a permanent fixture of Ivy or Preppy style.

It’s an interesting fabric with a long history, which is precisely why I wanted to add some seersucker to my wardrobe this summer.

I picked up a seersucker sport coat in blue and white stripe from the local Belk department store when it went on sale for about $80.

I wore it in one of my favorite “business” outfits this summer when I made a presentation to some department chairs. I wore the blazer over a yellow Ralph Lauren oxford and a pair of kelly green Ralph Lauren chinos. I really like how the outfit turned out – it has a very summery but not too casual look.

Again, I don’t think I’ll be adding much seersucker to my wardrobe at this point, but if I did I would get this very fun colorblock shirt from J. Crew.

While summer might be the most casual of all seasons there’s still plenty of ways to dress in a classic and stylish way. By sticking to summer weight fabrics like linen, madras, or seersucker you will keep cool while looking presentable.

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