Madras patterns are considered a staple of the summer wardrobe of prep style enthusiasts. The pattern became very popular in the 1960s in the form of shirts, pants and jackets, when in fact it had been around for much longer. But how did it become so popular and what are its roots? Since there is not much information about this colorful, plaid summer fabric, it was about time for the Gentleman’s Gazette to dig a little deeper to find out more about Madras.
History of Madras Fabric
City of Madras
The madras fabric is named after the Indian city of Madras ( now known as Chennai ) from where it first made its way to the west. Madras was originally known as “Madraspatnam” and has a long history stretching back to at least the 2nd century. The first European traders that established a trading post in the area were Dutch, arriving in 1612. They traded mainly in the local calico cloth, which was in high demand.
The English East India Company established themselves in 1626 at a site called Armagon but soon found that the local cloth was of a poor quality and not suitable for export. Accordingly to Francis Day, an officer of the company, they embarked on a voyage of exploration down the coast. In time he found “the only place for paintings ( actually chintz imprinted with colored designs using wooden blocks ), so much desired… and likewise great store of longcloath and morrees” ( a blue cotton cloth ). The place was a fishing village called Madraspatnam and on 22 August 1639 he secured a grant from the local ruler to establish a trading post and thus the modern outpost of Madras was founded.
The Fabric Evolves
To secure a reliable supply of merchandise, the company attracted Indian merchants and weavers by promising them exemptions from duties for a period of thirty years. and within a year it is said that nearly four hundred families of weavers had permanently settled in Madras.
The original Madras fabric was plain cotton muslin, overprinted or embroidered in elaborate patterns using natural (vegetable) dyes. The weave was simple and loose and rice gruel was used as an adhesive. The predominant colors were shades of blue, black and red checks. It was a lightweight breathable fabric suited to a humid tropical climate. An important ingredient in the process was the quality of water used in dyeing , as water from different regions would affect the colors differently. Another distinguishing feature was that it had the same pattern on both sides. This fabric was popular among the British in India who then took it to their home country. It gained in popularity and its use began to spread to different parts of the British Empire. Interestingly, the Boston Evening Transcript from Jan 17, 1908 claims that the shirtmaker David J. Anderson invented and gave the Madras fabric its name after 1844. Considered that East India Company made Madras before then, it seems implausible however, back then the streams of information was much more segmented and it was possible to “invent” things in different parts of the world at different times.
The modern day Madras fabric has a plaid or checked and sometimes even striped pattern in generally bright colors. These patterns, especially plaid, first made their appearance about a hundred and fifty years ago and were the result of the tartan craze which started with the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822. As was to be expected, this influenced the British in India and tartan started to be incorporated into Madras. The Harris Museum in Preston, Lancashire has two swatches of Madras fabric dating from 1866; one is a tartan and the other very similar to modern day Madras (see pictures below).
Modern day Madras is basically a check – patterned cotton cloth that comes in three varieties.
- The first or basic type is made by dyeing cotton thread in different colors and then weaving them to make various plaid patterns.
- The other is a patchwork of pieces of cotton cloth of different patterns stitched together.
- The third type is called Bleeding Madras and has a unique story of its own.
How Madras became popular in the U.S.
It first made its appearance in America in 1718 as a part of a donation made to the Collegiate School of Connecticut by the then Governor of Madras Elihu Yale. The college was later renamed Yale University in his honor. However, according to the Sears Roebuck & Company catalog, madras shirts were available in 1897, and even the New York Times mentioned a madras shirt shortage in November 1919. The cloth gained some popularity during the 1930s among American tourists who holidayed in the resorts of the Caribbean. As such, it was also featured in Apparel Arts and Esquire. It was worn by returning students at their Ivy League colleges to mark them out as being wealthy enough to have visited these expensive destinations. Thereafter it grew in popularity in America. In 1952, Gentry featured the Madras pattern as well, but the big breakthrough came allegedly in 1958, when the leading textile importer William Jacobson embarked on a trip from the U.S. to Bombay in the hopes to return with this exotic fabric from India.
Upon his arrival, the local textile Commissioner Mr. Swaminathan directed him to Captain C.P.Krishnan Nair the proprietor of Leela Scottish Lace Ltd, a textile exporting company from Chennai ( modern day Madras) who presented Jacobson with a fabric that he fell for right away. It was a Madras plaid fabric with a strong smell of vegetable dyes and sesame oils that was dyed in vivid colors that was originally made for export to South Africa. Mr. Nair was delighted to supply Mr. Jacobson with the Madras fabric at $1 per yard, warning him that the fabric required utmost care when laundering because the color would run out if it wasn’t gently washed in cold water.
The American exporter sold ( 10,000 yards ) of the same fabric to Brooks Brothers who manufactured trousers and jackets (which sold for $50) . However Jacobson failed to fully explain the properties of the fabric and did not issue washing instructions to Brooks Brothers.
Customers were furious when they saw the colors run that ruined their expensive summer apparel. Jacobson was likewise furious and summoned Mr. Nair to the United States where his attorneys threatened to sue Mr. Nair and the Leela Scottish Lace Ltd.
Instead of fighting each other they came up with solution that was sheer marketing genius! One of the attorneys arranged an interview for Mr. Nair with the editor of Seventeen Magazine in which he created a story about this miracle Madras fabric from India that was exclusively made for Brooks Brothers in New York. In the following issue, the editor ran a seven-page article about fabric titled “Bleeding Madras — the miracle handwoven fabric from India”. And since pictures say more than 1,000 words, they added beautiful photographs with the caption “guaranteed to bleed”.
Within a days of the magazine hitting the newsstands, Brooks Brothers was flooded with thousands of requests for the Madras items and it became an overnight success. Both, Mr. Jacobson and Mr. Nair made a fortune from the sale and paved the way for future Indian fabric exports of millions of yards of Madras cloth.
In the 1960’s, David Ogivily, one of the leading “Mad Men” of the era, would further a very similar campaign for Hathaway Madras shirts, and all of a sudden customers couldn’t wait to see their Madras shirts fade fast enough.
Madras in India
Ironically, despite its success abroad, Madras is not popular in India as the pattern for shirts, jackets or pants because is associated with a certain types of lungi ( sarong ) worn predominantly by the labor class in India. Apart from that, it is generally only used in sleep wear.
Unique Characteristics of Madras
Madras fabric has certain unique characteristics. They are first and foremost all hand woven cottons with the same pattern on both sides of the cloth. This is one of the easiest ways to authenticate true Madras. If it does not have the same pattern on both sides it is not authentic Madras. Madras fabrics usually shrink in size by as much as ten percent when washed and thus it needs to be washed before it is converted into any garment. This is already taken care of in ready to wear garments by the manufactures themselves. They have bold patterns and plaids that are at times very difficult to match. Traditionally, the cloth has small flaws, because it is hand woven. These small flaws do not in any way take away from the fabric’s quality but add to its character and can in fact, be taken as a hallmark of authenticity. Although popular in the 1960’s, bleeding madras is hard to come by these days since most large scale brands like Ralph Lauren use chemically dyed, non-bleeding Madras fabrics.
How to wear Madras
Other than for shirts, pants and sport coats, the pattern also makes for great accessories such as ties, bow ties and pocket squares. Because of its bold nature, it pairs best with muted solids. So if you have a Madras jacket, pair it with a solid tie, a solid oxford cloth shirt and contrasting pants.
When worn as shorts, it pays to pick up one of the main colors of the Madras and wear it with a solid polo shirt in the same color. Madras shirts should be paired with solid, casual sport coats in light colors. Green can also work great with Madras ties or shirts.
Try to avoid wearing Madras with other plaids, glenchecks, paisleys or stripes because it is simply too much pattern. Every once in a while, you will see somebody in a Madras suit with tie or bow tie in the same fabric. To me that is beyond good taste, but as always, to each their own. Personally, I think patchwork Madras is even more difficult to combine because it stands out even more, so be cautious when you are tempted to invest in a patchwork garment.
Where to buy Madras items?
If you google for it you will see that almost every brand offers some kind of madras garment. Brands like Ralph Lauren, J. Press and Brooks Brothers still offer many variations of madras items though if you want bleeding madras, your best bet is probably ebay or you buy your own fabric and have it tailored. Even better, you go to Chennai and get your fabric right at its origin.