Once upon a time, back when men wore hats, they also wore summer suits. And I don’t mean those ubiquitous blue-pinstripe suits that are made of tropical wool but still convey the chilly, mid-winter “dark suit” look that connotes seriousness and, let’s be honest, boredom.
No, I mean real summer suits—seersucker, white linen, a light windowpane. The kind of suit that suggests sipping mint juleps on the veranda or Campari in a Roman piazza. I have a closet full of such suits, acquired over the years. They look pretty good, actually. But I never, ever wear them.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of Summer Suits
These days, serious men are expected to dress like heads of state, which means a dark suit for all occasions, even in the sweltering heat of midsummer. It’s the look that says: Trust me, I’m monochromatic, I’m dark and un-mysterious, I’m cool on the inside even though it’s hot as hell in this gray wool suit.
If you want to see what I mean, check out this year’s official G-8 Web site (surely, it’s on your “favorites” list) and look at the group photo taken in mid-July in the Italian town of L’Aquila. It had to be steamy, even for the leaders of the advanced industrial nations.
But the men lined up on either side of squat little Silvio Berlusconi are all dressed in dark power suits, with one exception: Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, who is wearing a light suit in a summery off-white shade. And frankly, he looks out of place, like he didn’t get the email about the dress code. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel is wearing a sort of sailor-girl thing, with a blue blazer and white pants, but that’s a different fashion story.)
Try wearing anything light-colored this summer and I promise that you will regret it. I have a double-breasted white linen suit that I bought in Beirut 25 years ago when I aspired to look like a Lebanese fixer (or better, his bodyguard). Every few years I wear it somewhere, but I just get guffaws. People ask me for ice cream cones.
I have a handsome golden-tan double-breasted suit made by Yves Saint Laurent that I tried to wear when I was business editor of The Washington Post. Our retailing reporter, a perky, stylish young woman, told me once that I should never, ever put it on it again. I have two light-colored double-breasted suits made by my Hong Kong tailor, the incomparable A-Man Hing Cheong, but I have given up on them, too.
Occasionally, I can get away with a lightweight Glen plaid suit, but even that drew comments this year. (“Wow, a summer suit!”) As for the yellow linen blazer with thin blue stripes that was on sale at Brooks Brothers, my wife let me wear it once, just to show me that I was crazy to buy it, and then banned it. And my newly purchased royal blue Zegna blazer drew a rebuke even from my editor at The Daily Beast when I wore it on Morning Joe last week. The permissible range for men’s fashion is A to B.
Ben Bradlee, my mentor in all things, has a seersucker suit that his wife claims he wore once to the White House. President George W. Bush spotted Ben and told him that he had one, too, and threatened to go upstairs and put it on, which is an interesting thought. The whole Bush thing might have gone differently if he had worn seersucker.
Once upon a time, the whole point of men’s clothes was to be comfortable. Relaxed, maybe a bit rumpled. Nothing too flashy, nothing to call undue attention. This rubric tolerated a few light-colored summer suits. Indeed, on a hot day, it would have seemed unusual to be dressed in a dark, wintry fabric.
But those days are gone. Modern men live in a permanent sartorial winter. I would love to wear my double-breasted white linen suit to a party. But I won’t. Not until I come out the other end of middle age and don’t mind that I have crumbs on my lapels and take it as a compliment when people call me eccentric.
David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post and the author of seven novels. His book, Body of Lies, was the basis for the movie of the same name directed by Ridley Scott; The Increment has been optioned by Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney.