Sen. Bill Cassidy knows a thing or two about the persistent southern heat. You would, too, if you grew up in on the banks of the Mississippi in Lousiana’s lower half.
The South is stubbornly heat tolerant, with southerners coping by saying “it’s not the heat that will get you, it’s the humidity,” and by maintaining an ever-ready pitcher of sweet tea or Cheerwine. Southerners know that there’s no sense in trying to beat the heat (This North Carolina reporter will tell you, you simply can’t).
“Once I had a nurse [who] was from Buffalo, and she said ‘everybody fights the environment,’” Cassidy, who’s also a doctor, told Federal Times in an interview. “We jack up the air conditioning. We rush to turn on the air conditioning in the car. Why don’t we just dress for the climate, drink cold drinks instead of hot coffee, and otherwise adapt?”
That’s the logic behind the annual Seersucker Day in Congress, a tradition led by Sen. Cassidy and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California that sees Hill staff, lawmakers and others coordinate one day in June to wear seersucker — a lightweight, tightly woven cotton fabric that is striped, usually in pastels, and slightly puckered to give off a gathered, somewhat wrinkly look. On the day, it’s customary for lawmakers in various offices, Republican and Democrat, southerner and, yes, northerners too, to snap a photo wearing suits, jackets, ties and skirts in a dizzying, optical illusion-like sea of stripes.
“You wear seersucker, and people describe it as feeling like pajamas,” Cassidy said. “It’s a classy pajama, if you will. And you’re in sync with the weather of the summer, as opposed to complaining about the weather this summer.”
Next month, on the 10th anniversary of the day, as temperates climb and torrid levels of humidity envelop Washington, Cassidy, a Republican, and Feinstein, a Democrat, will again be co-leading the introduction of a bipartisan resolution to mark June 8 as National Seersucker Day.
While Washington’s style is often described as conservative and — let’s be honest — dull, seersucker has gained a following among the capital city’s sartorially adventurous.
“You can’t get away with wearing [seersucker] every day up here, because it’s still the downtown crowd in their dark suits and everything,” said Darren Kinnaird, who offered his personal observations as a Hill staffer and southerner who has participated in Seersucker Day. “The marble columns kind of keep us a little dressier around here.”
‘Milk and sugar’
Seersucker, whose name stems from cotton fiber traded in India in the 1600s and known as “shirushakar” or “milk and sugar,” was popularized in the U.S. by businessmen in New Orleans in the early 20th century, and it was former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi who established Seersucker Thursday as a trend in Congress in 1996.
Then, Seersucker Day went unobserved in 2012 and 2013. Sen. Cassidy picked it back up in 2014 in the House. Not even the pandemic brought it to a halt, as the fabric was used to make face masks that were handed out.
In 2022, about 70 people on the Hill participated.
“I kind of like it because it’s just an interesting way to dress. If I wore a blue sports coat every day, 365, my God, just put me in a coffin,” Cassidy joked.
Seersucker is as fashionable as it is functional, its advocates say. It’s also a way to bring offices across the country together in a way that doesn’t always happen organically.
Pictures show past participants included now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Sen. Roger Wicker ( R-Miss.), Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
The ‘Cool Kids’
“It’s always a competition [of] who’s going to be the person furthest north who wears seersucker that day,” Cassidy said. “Of course, if Murkowski wears, she always wins. But then after that, it’s between Klobuchar and [Maine Sen. Susan] Collins.”
Kinnaird, who in 2019 wore two-toned pastel pants with a cummerbund and bowtie, said Seersucker Day represents how well southern staffs can work together and have a shared identity regardless of party.
For this year’s Seersucker Day, Cassidy predicts a good turnout. And for those still on the hunt, he recommends Haspel, a clothing company founded in 1909 in Louisiana that specialized in seersucker suits and to this day sells the fabric in many forms.
“People make this comparison all the time that Congress is a lot like high school,” said Adam Bozzi, a Democratic strategist and former Hill staffer. “Gossip is currency. There’s a desire to be around the cool kids. There’s a yearning for attention. So Seersucker Day is right out of spirit week.”
It’s fun and a little bit silly, he said, but “anything that Congress does that helps members find a way to work together is a good thing.”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.