Preps and the Southern Gentry have long known of linen's power to dispel summer heat without sacrificing a sense of style and elegance. The classic American look has its roots in a fabric that dates back to ancient Egypt, where citizens and cloth-wrapped mummies alike relied on linen's unparalleled breathability to keep from roasting in the desert heat. Fast forward to the early 20th century, when Louisiana clothier Joseph Haspel – the man credited with inventing the seersucker suit in 1909 – saw the innate value of linen's heat-beating characteristics and put it to use in men's suits.
Haspel's hunch was right, and his suits became favored fare for presidents Coolidge, Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy – and were seen on the likes of Hollywood gods Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. The brand fell into a rough patch for a few decades, but has been revived in recent years by Haspel's great-granddaughter, Laurie Haspel Aronson, who has righted things with a few new lines and updated styles that harken back to Haspel's now classic early designs: three buttons up the middle, a not-too-big, not-too-small lapel, and a hard pleat down the middle of the pant leg.
True linen, made from the flax plant, is in many ways a wonder fabric. It's soft to the touch, yet is very durable and, like silk, stronger when wet. It also doesn't produce lint, and can absorb and shed water quickly. Unlike cotton, which starts to cling and go limp in humid weather, linen wicks moisture away from the body and allows it to evaporate easily (and so stays crisp, dry, and cool). The downside to all this is that linen tends to wrinkle easily. In a casual setting, mildly disheveled linen is considered perfectly fine, but for something more formal, it should be ironed damp on a high setting to get rid of deep creases – don't worry, it'll dry on its own, and quickly. One of linen's other fine traits is that it continues to soften with age, which reduces the creasing effect significantly; the more you wear it, the less it will wrinkle.
In light of such versatility, every man's wardrobe simply ought to include a linen suit (or two, or three – they're often a fraction of the cost of a winter weight suit). All the styles in Haspel's line – in navy, olive, brown as well as some brighter reds and blues – add a dash of panache while maintaining a smart exterior (and cool interior). We think the natural tan and white are the safe summer bet, and fit the part whether you're dressing up with a tie or down with a polo.
"The cool thing about linen suits is that they can be worn as separates," says Aronson. In other words, just the jacket over, say, light-colored summer-weight khakis or jeans, or just the pants under an all-cotton polo. She suggests simple colors and patterns for pairing with the suit: two-toned ties work much better than a slew of bright colors, which come off messy against the textured fabric. [From $295; haspel.com]