As we are all sweatily aware, New Orleans gets hot in the summer. Not just hot, but humid, funky, why-do-we-live-here swamp hot. In that kind of heat, clothes are a key element in the months-long battle to keep cool. That is why linen, an apt choice of fabric for such muggy summers, has become a New Orleans fashion staple.

“Linen has always been a fabric of the south,” says Herbert Halpern, proprietor of Promenade Fine Fabrics on St. Charles Avenue. “Linen has durability, it breathes and takes color beautifully.”

Kellie Grengs, Costume Director of the Loyola University Department of Theatre, Arts and Dance, agrees that linen is an appropriate choice for the heat. She says, “the properties of [linen] just feel wonderful when you wear it.”

“Linen is a cool, crisp fabric,” she says. “It feels good on your skin after you’ve been in the sun all day.”

“New Orleanians love linen, they wear it every day,” Halpern says. “In recent years New Orleans has been the national leader and inspiration for wearing linen and seer sucker.” 

“It is tradition,” says Halpern of the appeal of linen to New Orleanians, “but it’s practical and beautiful.”

 Halpern, who has been in the textile business for 50 years, says linen fabric is still used for the same purposes as it was historically, including clothing, curtains, table cloths, napkins and religious items.

“Linen originated over 4,000 years ago in Egypt and is referred to in a few Eastern languages such as Hebrew, Arabic and Persian, but one can find a reference to linen in almost any European language,” Halpern says. “There are many references to linen in the Bible. Ireland was really the first country to make linen into an industry, which was in the early 18th century.”

“[Linen] fibers come from a flax plant which is a cellulosic fiber. This means there is a carbohydrate polymer which is commonly found in vegetation,” says Hazel Siegel, a visiting assistant professor of textiles for interiors in Pratt Institute’s Graduate Interior Design Department.
“It is a natural fiber and thus is biodegradable. It fits in the sustainable product category of cradle-to-cradle fibers, which means it can go back into the earth or be reused in one of the states of fabric, for example as clothing, drapery, upholstery, tablecloths, toweling, summer dress goods, sportswear, etc.,” Siegel says.

Halpern notes from a business perspective that flax plants are struggling to survive in the face of terrible pollution in places like Ireland, a former production hub.

Halpern says that while it’s getting more difficult to find linen fabric, its appeal has grown. He says, “In recent years, I sell more linen out of town than in New Orleans because many national stores no longer carry linen, but it’s in demand for day and evening apparel.”

Grengs, too, appreciates the popularity of linen evening wear garments. She says, “Men look dapper in a white linen suit. It’s become the new black tie of New Orleans.”

As New Orleans just loves a party, of course there’s a celebration for the summer sophistication of white linen; Whitney White Linen Night, celebrated the first Saturday of August each summer. This year, the 15th annual White Linen Night will be held August 1 (rain date – Sat., Aug. 8).
Hosted by the New Orleans Arts District, White Linen Night reflects the longstanding Southern tradition of wearing light colors and linen to beat the summer heat. Beyond carrying on a fashion legacy, White Linen Night is an occasion for arts patrons to peruse local galleries in their best summer duds and reflect on the importance of the arts in New Orleans.

Just started in the summer of 1994, White Linen Night now draws a crowd of about 30,000 attendees to the Warehouse Arts District.

“The Gallery Shows are important ones, with the galleries and artists working all year long to present special works. The music, drinks and food all combine to make it a fun night out for people of all ages!” says Jean Bragg, president of the New Orleans Arts District, of the event. “ It is the place to see and be seen with friends!”

Traditionally, the gallery openings and street party take place from 6 to 9 p.m., with the center of festivities taking place between the 300 and 600 blocks of Julia Street.

Bragg recommends visiting Ariodante, a gallery featuring jewelry, hand-blown glass and furniture; the Jean Bragg Gallery, featuring art on or by Louisiana artists; and the galleries of George Schmidt and Steve Martin.

Bragg also says, “The array of modern art in Arthur Roger Gallery, Gallery Bienvenu, and LeMieux provide a great art walk and selection.”

Admission to galleries is free on White Linen Night, but you might want to bring a few bucks for the cash bars and various food vendors dotting the streets during the celebration. (2008 food vendors included 7 on Fulton, the Bombay Club, La Divina Gelateria, Nirvana and Wolfe’s In the Warehouse.) Proceeds from drink and food sales fund the event’s production, and the Contemporary Arts Center and the New Orleans Arts District share the profits.

From 9 p.m. until midnigh, the CAC also hosts an after-party featuring food, live music and cash bars. Tickets to the after party are free for members of the CAC, and about $10 for everybody else. For more info on White Linen Night, call the CAC, which produces White Linen Night for the Arts District, at 528-3805.

For the less traditional types, there is also Dirty Linen Night, the second Saturday in August (Aug. 8, 2009), from 6 to 9 p.m.
Juxtaposed to the clean, crispness of White Linen Night, Dirty Linen Night invites arts patrons to dig last week’s linen out of the hamper in a celebration matching the avant-garde spirit of the French Quarter. Held along Royal Street and Jackson Square, Dirty Linen night is also an admission-free celebration of the arts.

“For Dirty Linen night, you’re encouraged to wear [your white linen suit] one more time before sending it to the cleaners but really, just send it to the cleaners,” Grengs says of the ‘dirty linen’ tradition.

As linen is woven from natural fibers, Grengs says it’s important to clean garments right away as body oils and perspiration can break the fibers down. For stains, Grengs recommends immediate spot treatment on linen. Like cotton, linen is a very absorbent.

Halpern’s philosophy regarding wrinkles is more carefree: “It is a known fact that linen wrinkles, but it wrinkles beautifully,” he says. Siegel notes, “[Linen] can be treated to be wrinkle resistant, thus making it a more viable product.”