By DAVID COLMAN
BLUE collar, white collar. Whichever a man wears, he sometimes secretly longs for the other: the humble realness of the blue, the entitled ease of the white. For years men's fashion has toyed with these yearnings, bringing aristocratic trappings (à la Ralph Lauren) to the masses and thrift-shop hipness (à la Marc Jacobs) to the elite.
So it is a bit of poetic justice that the old blue and white striped fabric called seersucker should be in style uptown and down, in town and out. After all, it has already lived both lives.
Widely considered patrician, seersucker was a 19th-century workingman's fabric, a cheap American cotton version of a luxurious Indian silk. In the 1920's stylish undergraduates, in a spirit of reverse snobbery, took up the thin puckered fabric for summer wear. That edge was still sharp in 1945, when Damon Runyon wrote that his new penchant for wearing seersucker was "causing much confusion among my friends."
"They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new vogue," he wrote dryly.
Today, fittingly, seersucker garments are made by both Mr. Lauren, in a weathered marine-blue and white style, and Mr. Jacobs, in metropolitan tones of black, gray and brown. The fabric has been embraced by European designers — Jil Sander and Dries van Noten — but the look is also in favor with men who do not get their cues from the runways of Milan and Paris.
At the white-shoe retailer Maus & Hoffman in Palm Beach, Fla., seersucker suits have moved from a back-of-store standard to a center attraction on the cover of its spring catalog. At the old-school label Haspel sales of seersucker are up more than 500 percent in the last three years, said James Ammeen, the president of Neema Clothing, which holds the Haspel license.
Haspel has appealed to younger customers with more than a dozen colors, including green, pink and tan, and lighter jackets with only a cool half-lining. Mr. Ammeen noted that young men who buy seersucker jackets and pants to wear separately account for a good part of the rise.
"Seersucker is a bit dandyish and Tom Wolfe-ish, which is a fun way to dress in the city," said Christian Vesper, an executive at the Sundance Channel in Manhattan, who prefers to wear only a jacket or pants in the fabric. "I've never gone all seersucker. I don't like all anything."
Mr. Vesper first dabbled in seersucker some 25 years ago in Newport Beach, Calif. "I bought a seersucker coat for my eighth-grade graduation," he recalled with a chuckle. "I think I'd read about it in the "Preppy Handbook" and decided that was the look for me."
Once removed from its freshly pressed ideal (with a white shirt, rep tie and straw hat), seersucker is surprisingly versatile. Worn with blue jeans, white painter's pants or faded khakis, with an untucked cowboy shirt or that paragon of 21st-century elegance, the weathered AC/DC T-shirt, a smart seersucker jacket adds that often-lacking je ne sais quoi, suggesting, say, that you have a job.
A man already endowed with a patrician air, or a ruddy complexion, might do well to avoid the most traditional seersucker (in the one-eighth-inch-thick Bengal stripe, as it is known). You don't want to be mistaken for an escapee from a Eudora Welty novel. But there are more low-key fabrics, like the thinner pencil-stripe blue and white cotton that Club Monaco and Banana Republic have made into trousers, that say seersucker without the Southern accent.
Others can indulge away. William Thompson, 37, who works in financial services in Manhattan, is more than happy to.
"To me it's the same thing as a young white guy wearing urban clothes, said Mr. Thompson, who is black. "It's the same juxtaposition. It's wearing something that represents what I am not, that goes against everything I am."
Whatever it means, the present and the distant past attest that seersucker was never meant to be precious. It just goes to show you what happens when Ivy Leaguers, or fashion designers, get their mitts on something.