What’s unc wearing to the cookout? Linen shorts and sandals, of course.
Those sharp creases send a message to the culture
What the man doing the grilling is wearing this weekend is almost as important as his dry rub recipe.
We’ve all laughed at the memes, but our uncles and their linen short-sleeved shirts, matching belted linen shorts and woven Fisherman sandals are an actualization of showing up in spaces of joy.
“We’ve all met, been around or had an uncle or father figure, grandfather — those old-school dudes — who speak about the importance of dressing,” stylist Elly Karamoh said. “Whether we felt like they dressed the part or not, it was something significant to their upbringing and culture. We’ve all respected it.”
Karamoh says the creased linen suits, sandals, shorts and polo shirts are a way to communicate class. “We honor our elders, our OGs, and we want to become them. Everyone has that uncle. It’s something to be proud of and to honor.”
Kimberly Jenkins, the founder of the Fashion and Race Database, notes the linen suit has become a rite of passage for Black men. Akin to being able to handle the grill at a cookout, a person is stepping into their manhood once they don the linen suit, almost as if to say, “I’m going to wear these clothes that signify maturity, sophistication and being cultured.”
An uncle in a linen suit also implies a level of freedom. “This doesn’t apply to all aunties and uncles, but more often than not we’re talking about the ones who didn’t have children,” Jenkins said. “They’re more free to take risks and be more self-indulgent. They wear, behave and travel how they want. It’s aspirational and we love to be around them.”
We also love to be around them because we know they will slide us a few dollars or put us on to an older song we didn’t appreciate when our parents played it at home. But it’s more than that. It’s what their appearance signals to us.
When Black men start to do all right for themselves, it shows. Consumption often attracts and solidifies community. For these Black men, pulling up to the cookout in their shiny Cadillac while wearing a linen suit with creased pants and the luxuriously woven Fisherman sandals signals to their family and the world that they’ve made it.
They have money to spend and they do: on a thick herringbone chain around their neck, a gold pinky ring with the quick flash of a diamond in the center, the Courvoisier they like to swirl around in a snifter. They might be slamming their Cuban-linked wrist down during a card game in someone’s backyard, but this is Black resort wear.
Linen is now considered a symbol of luxury — who wants to do all of that ironing and starching on a material that will wrinkle the minute you take a step? But it was originally a fabric worn by the enslaved.
Jenkins said Black people’s relationship with linen began with the descendants of enslaved people, who were given a disposable raw, unflattering material called “negro cloth” to dress themselves. “It was not designed for Black people to stand out, or to feel good in, or to have as a fashion statement,” she said.
Before the Industrial Revolution, linen was considered de rigueur for upper-class people to wear until the cotton gin made cotton production significantly easier and that material became fashionable for the elite. Linen, which was previously considered the height of luxury in terms of wearability and material, was given to enslaved and lower-class people.
“Linen becomes marketed to the lower class, and it’s pushed toward people who cannot afford the more affluent fabric, which is cotton at the time,” said Preeti Arya, assistant professor of textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
After emancipation, Black people made it a point to break away from anything resembling negro cloth and added their own flavor to the finery worn by their white peers. And by the latter part of the 20th century, we saw a definite departure from the heavy “Sunday best” style of dress.
Jenkins pointed to how entertainers such as comedians Bernie Mac and Steve Harvey reflected and popularized the stereotypical “uncle at the cookout outfit.” Though these two didn’t create this style of dress, they understood what the look communicated.
“Just the fact that they have been in our line since the early 2000s should be enough proof these should keep going,” said Stacy Adams designer Ryan Butts. The brand’s vice president David Polansky confirms: “We always sell the ‘old-school’ Fisherman well. It’s an older consumer and the guy wears it with ‘sets’ [matching shirt and pants].”
Karamoh began working with Harvey in 2019. Thanks to the popularity of The Steve Harvey Show (it ran from 1996 to 2002) and the Kings of Comedy tour with Mac, Cedric the Entertainer and D.L. Hughley in 1997, Harvey already embodied the aspirational style of dress synonymous with Black uncles.
At the beginning of his professional relationship with Harvey, the two talked about what it means to be a Black man with means. Mac and Harvey conveyed their status in their community through dress. These weren’t men who were struggling anymore. They could afford to maintain their linen suits and keep their gold jewelry shining. Like the unfiltered uncles in the barbershop spouting off on the latest current events, men in linen suits convey a cultural shorthand spoken among the originals — the OGs. They’ve worked hard to get where they are — no small feat for any Black man in America — and can now enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“A lot of men, especially Black men, start making a specific amount of money and we want to fill the space with this new identity,” Karamoh said. “That’s not usually ourselves but that’s a symbol of this new space, this new level. It’s really important to identify yourself now.”
Louis Johnson Jr, who co-owns Harlem Haberdashery in New York with his siblings, says that linen should really only be worn in the peak of summer’s heat in July through September. “July Fourth is actually the classic day to start your linen. It’s fine to wear linen in July, but if you’re trying to wear it in April or June, you’re speeding.” And that’s because linen is a vacation item to be worn — you guessed it — leisurely.
“I’m classic and buy classic pieces,” Johnson said. “I don’t buy things that are on trend because it will be off trend next season. I have a nice little linen walking suit that I bought in Seattle over 30 years ago but no one would know.” (For the record, Johnson prefers a linen blend or a light cotton for the summer.)
Johnson is a father and an uncle who hopes to impart to his sons and nephews the importance of keeping up their appearance. “I just hope they take on the understanding as a Black man to keep your nose clean, keep your a– washed, keep your breath clean and out of people’s business,” he said. “Now if my uncle pulls up at the family reunion in two weeks in Connecticut with a good little linen suit, I’ll let him pass. That’s his clean. That’s his classic. That’s something he’s probably had forever.”