Tom Wolfe has been skewering and illuminating the American scene since the ’60s, starting with such books as The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his account of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as they traveled around dishing out, and eating, copious amounts of LSD. His style of immersive reporting became the cornerstone of the New Journalism movement, and his unique voice and critical eye for pop and counterculture mores earned him a cult-like following in the ensuing decades.
Even before he hooked up with the Pranksters, Wolfe had donned what would become his trademark: a white suit and homburg hat. Arriving in New York City in 1962 to work for the New York Herald Tribune, he wanted to find a way to stand out from the crowd, and so he bought a white silk. Wolfe found it too hot to wear in New York’s sweaty, humid summers, and instead donned it in the winter, which, as he told USA Today in 1999, “created such resentment, I loved it.”
The young writer also found the suit gave him certain advantages over something more nondescript. By standing out in the crowd, or, as he put it, being “the man from Mars who simply wants to know,” he was able to more easily get people to confide and open up to him, a valuable tool for a reporter. Wolfe also credited the outfit with making him appear more interesting than he actually was, especially at first, describing them as a “substitute for a personality” for the first 10 years of wearing them.
Now 86 years old and firmly established in the pantheon of great American writers, Wolfe still wears his white suit, even to the gym, though he no longer needs any such visual cues to appear interesting. As summer begins to wind down, the average man’s opportunity to dress like a Southern gentleman—or an iconic author — does as well. Here’s a quick guide to seizing the moment. After all, as Mr. Wolfe himself said, “you never realize how much of your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes.”
The homburg is a fedora-like hat with a rounded brim that curls in the back and has a dent in the center of the crown. It was originally made fashionable by England’s King Edward VII in the early 20th century, though over the years hat makers have taken artistic license with its silhouette. It is traditionally made of felt, but to accommodate summer’s heat we’d recommend going with a slightly more breathable material, such as Optimo’s Montecristi Panama straw version. If you aren’t prone to perspiration, the Stacy Adams wool felt Homburg in ivory white should do the trick.
Even Wolfe acknowledged that wearing a full suit in the summer can be torture. Get around looking like you just stepped out of a sweat lodge with a summer weight coat, preferably half-lined, and made from a light fabric such as seersucker. Created in 1909 by Joseph Haspel Sr. to beat the heat in pre-air conditioner New Orleans, the seersucker jacket is made from a puckered cotton originally designed for worker’s summer uniforms. Still going strong over a century of gentle evolution later, Haspel’s Gravier sportcoat is nothing short of an icon in itself, if you’re bold enough to wear it. And if you’re going to go seersucker, this is undeniably the first name in doing so. If the $700 price tag has you sweating in a different way, J Crew’s Ludlow summer weight linen coat is an affordable, and accessible, option.
If you went with Haspel’s white seersucker for the coat, there’s no reason not to do it for the pants as well. Their Bernard trouser features the same white puckered Italian cotton and a tailored fit in matching white. That said, you shouldn’t be afraid to go with a slightly darker shade for pants, or even make a bold radical chic statement of your own, such as with Ralph Lauren’s red pepper pima twill pants.
The lighter weight the better. Joseph Abboud’s white linen modern fit sport shirt is a perfect example, as is Brooks Brothers’ “Brookscool” supima cotton shirt. Of course, this is also another perfect opportunity to add a little splash of uniqueness, like Polo’s checked poplin shirt.
While Wolfe will occasionally wear a matching white tie, he’s just as often shown with a bold slash of dark color, flecked with a pattern such as polka dots. Ermenegildo Zegna’s paisley jacquard necktie will make a statement, as will Brioni’s circle jacquard tie. Brunello Cucinelli’s plain cashmere tie is a simpler choice, and comes in a variety of colors.
Wolfe favors two-tone black and white patent leather dress shoes. Saddle shoes, a type of Oxford shoe, are a summertime staple. Thom Browne’s textured leather version is as good as they get, and will scale back the formality of the suit a bit, perfect for summer’s casual vibe. If you really want to get out of the box, consider a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor low’s in optical white.